(April 2003) Every year over 5 million children under the age of 14, primarily in developing countries, die from illnesses aggravated by unhealthy environments, including diarrhea, malaria, acute respiratory infections, and injuries from accidents. Children are exposed to environmental threats in their homes, schools, streets, play areas, and the homes of their extended families. For generations children have suffered risks from unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, indoor air pollution, insufficient food hygiene, poor housing, and inadequate waste disposal. Increasingly, they face newer threats from the unsafe use of dangerous chemicals; accidents and injuries; the consequences of global climate change and ozone depletion; and exposure to emerging diseases. These risks are aggravated by urban population growth, widespread poverty, consumption of natural resources, and the effects of globalization.

Strategies exist to address these environmental threats to children’s health. This year’s World Health Day (April 7) was dedicated to ensuring healthy environments for children by increasing awareness of environmental risks to children’s health, building on existing interventions, and adapting concrete actions to local needs. One of the most effective strategies has been the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) that prevents childhood illnesses like pneumonia and diarrhea by promoting key family practices (handwashing and safe disposal of feces), supporting research about effective strategies for reducing indoor air pollution and its possible effect on children’s health, and encouraging breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways of reducing the incidence and severity of childhood diarrhea and also ensuring the survival of newborn babies. Through the Healthy Environments for Children Alliance, a movement of local and national governments, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and individuals, the World Health Organization hopes to reinforce and build on strategies (like IMCI) to control environment-related disease. The alliance advances an initiative launched at the September 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development to galvanize action to create healthy environments for children.

For More Information

For more information about World Health Day 2003, see the World Health Organization’s website: www.who.int/world-health-day/2003/infomaterials and WHO’s Healthy Environments for Children Alliance: www.who.int/heca/en/.

For more information about population and environment, and specifically about children’s environmental health, read these PRB publications:

Population Issues Left Out of Earth Summit Discussion

Water at the Forefront of the World Summit on Sustainable Development

Making the Link: Population, Health, and Environment

Women, Men, and Environmental Change: The Gender Dimensions of Environmental Policies and Programs

Childhood Asthma: A Growing American Epidemic

Pesticides: A Threat to Central America’s Children and the Region’s Future

Tackling Asthma in West Harlem 

Children’s Environmental Health

For more information about newborn health, see the policy briefs in the series “Policy Perspectives on Newborn Health,” produced through a collaboration between PRB and Save the Children’s Saving Newborn Lives initiative.

Healthy Mothers and Healthy Newborns: The Vital Link

Why Invest in Newborn Health? (PDF: 268KB)

Liz Creel is a senior policy analyst at PRB.