Very young children are at the greatest risk from their environment. Their developing organs and immune systems leave them vulnerable to infections, parasites, and the effects of pollution. Based on new reports from the World Health Organization, the death toll is high: Nearly six million children aged four or younger die annually, and about a quarter of those deaths would be preventable if we cleaned up our polluted world.
Some of the connections between the environment and children's deaths are straightforward. Air pollution, whether it's from factories, car exhaust, or secondhand smoke from family members, is a major cause of fatal respiratory infections from pneumonia to sinusitis. Parts of the world without the money and resources necessary to ensure good hygiene and sanitation struggle with frequent cases of diarrhea. A fetus's exposure to chemicals and other environmental factors in the womb can also cause deadly complications.
Even clean drinking water can't solve everything, though, if there's insufficient infrastructure. For instance, malaria and dengue fever are more common in areas where the water supply is clean but not properly managed, becoming breeding grounds for disease-carrying pests. The report also looks at traffic accidents, drownings, fires, falls, and other deadly injuries that are caused by a lack of infrastructure needed to keep kids as safe as possible. These collectively account for a decent chunk of the "other" category in the chart above.
African children are by far the most frequent victims of environmental dangers. Of the 25 countries with the highest mortality rates for children less than five years old, all but four — Laos, Pakistan, Haiti, and Afghanistan — are in Africa, including all of the top 13. The 25 countries with the lowest death rates are found in Europe, with Israel, Singapore, and Australia the only exceptions.
This difference is a brutal and stark illustration of how poorer countries shoulder the burden of pollution and environmental damage. It also illustrates how the long-term impoverishing legacy of imperialism still shapes modern health disparities.
For all this, there's some cause for optimism. The World Health Organization's report is part of their long-term effort to eliminate these preventable deaths by 2030, and some progress has already been made. Since 1990, the child mortality rate has been cut in half, and more than two billion people have gained access to cleaner water and sanitation. Plenty more work still needs to be done in a short time to reach the goal, but the situation isn't as bleak as it could be.
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