Southern African News Features                                           SANF 09 No 05, January 2009
African governments commit to reducing environmental threats to health

A recent gathering of environment and health ministers in Libreville, Gabon, saw the adoption of the Libreville Declaration which commits governments to take measures to stimulate policy, institutional and investment reforms to optimise synergies between health, environment and other relevant sectors.

The Gabon meeting highlighted the need to address health, environment and economic development issues in an interrelated manner to generate new synergies in poverty reduction and social equity.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) website quoted Luis Sambo, the Regional Director of WHO Regional Office for Africa, as saying "The signing of this landmark declaration is the first step towards saving the lives of millions of people from the harmful effects of changes in the environment.

"We will work together to promote strategic alliances between health and environment. I am delighted that we have managed to secure political commitment to catalyse institutional changes needed to improve the health and well-being of communities in the region."

It is estimated that a quarter of the total burden of diseases in developing countries is associated with environmental risk factors.

According to a WHO report, in Africa 23 percent or 2.4 million of all deaths in 2006 were attributed to environmental risk factors.

The environmental risk factors to which Africa is exposed include inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene, as well as poor water resource management and unsafe water environments.

Africa’s coverage of safe drinking water and safe sanitation stands at about 56 and 37 percent of the population, respectively.

While there has been an overall improvement in the coverage of water supply in Africa since 1990, the regional projected coverage in 2015 still falls well below the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of 75 percent. As such the vast majority of Africa’s population will continue to rely on unsafe water sources, which themselves are exposed to increasing contamination and pollution.

About 90 percent of the global burden of malaria and of schistosomiasis affects the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Cholera is also an important water-related vector-borne disease which is prevalent in Africa.

There are also air pollution related illnesses that affect people across Africa. The impact of air pollution on health is seen in the increasing cases of respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis and tuberculosis. Other common air pollution-related diseases include heavy-metal-oriented illnesses, allergies and skin diseases, which are experienced mostly by children and the poor.

According to the fourth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4) report, Africa also faces challenges associated with chemical safety. African farmers use large amounts of chemical pesticides, and there are as much as 50,000 tonnes of obsolete stockpiles of pesticides contaminating soil, water, air, and food. Cases of poisoning from chemicals are often under reported.

The Libreville Declaration also acknowledges that Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change. At the same time, the continent has the least adaptive capacity to the health and other impacts of climate change.

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