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Environmental Impacts on Disease in Sub-Saharan Africa

Environmental Impacts on DiseaseHuman health and environmental concerns are commonly thought of and treated as unrelated issues. However, environmental degradation has an unquestionable impact on a community’s health. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) recently released a report underscoring this point. The UNEP finds environmental impacts on disease are especially apparent in Africa, where large numbers of people are directly reliant on natural resources. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 35% of the total burden of disease in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by environmental hazards. For example, contaminated water and air pollution commonly cause diarrhea and respiratory issues.

Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor air pollution is one of the leading environmental impacts on disease and death in Sub-Saharan Africa. People living in extreme poverty primarily depend directly on solid fuels (i.e. biomass fuels) for their heating and cooking needs. The harmful biomass fuels such as crop waste, coal and wood cause significant air pollution, especially when burned by inefficient and poorly ventilated stoves. Biomass smoke contains thousands of health-damaging substances. These pollutants penetrate deep into the lungs and initiate the development of acute lower respiratory disease, cancer and multiple other diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Women and young children are at the highest exposure to the fumes and have the highest rates of mortality resulting from indoor air pollution. WHO estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of indoor air pollution deaths in the world, along with parts of Southeast Asia.

Improving the Environment and Fighting Disease

Shifting from solid fuels to cleaner energy technologies can have a major impact on indoor air pollution levels. For instance, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), biogas and solar power generation all produce less indoor air pollution. Governments and NGOs alike should plan to help communities make this transition. However, air pollution is just one environmental concern that needs addressing.

Simple solutions to environmental concerns include safer storage of water and dangerous chemicals; these relatively cheap improvements can be highly effective in reducing disease. Ultimately, providing low-cost storage containers to urban and rural communities will result in prominent and lasting gains in health and economic development. Additionally, improving common household appliances can reduce indoor air pollution in poor communities; for example, stoves and ventilation systems often contribute to or fail to reduce indoor air pollution. Lastly, increasing education and public awareness about the environmental impacts on disease is critical; many environment-related health issues are preventable. For instance, educations can encourage mothers to keep small children away from constant contact with fires while cooking.

In Conclusion

It is imperative to address the upstream determinants of Sub-Saharan Africa’s high morbidity and mortality rates. Clean water and air are powerful preventative medicines. Implementing simple, yet effective solutions and sustainable management of natural resources is crucial to ending poverty. By helping people to treat the environment well, governments and NGOs can reduce diseases and child mortality; additionally, their work will improve maternal health and education across sub-Saharan Africa.

Samantha Johnson
Photo: Flickr