Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
World Health Organization
Good health is dependent on good nutrition, safe environments and access to quality healthcare for the prevention and treatment of disease and injury.
Poverty is both a cause and an effect of poor health. The poor suffer more and face more serious consequences from ill health. Countries which are poor have less capacity to provide basic health services for their people.
Improvements in income, education, nutrition, access to family planning, hygiene and housing have led to overall improvements in health.
Some of the key health areas are outlined in the following sections.
Public health systems
Public health aims to prevent illness and injury, control the spread of disease and enhance current and future wellbeing and quality of life across the population. Activities include health education, provision of drugs, immunisation, family planning, and supply of clean water and sanitation.
Access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food is an important way to prevent disease, strengthen immunity and build better health. Although often invisible, malnutrition affects more than 792 million people worldwide, especially the poor. Young children are especially vulnerable to malnutrition; those surviving may suffer ongoing disease and disability, affecting their ability to learn and develop to their full potential.
Immunisation is the process whereby a person is made immune or resistant to an infectious disease, typically by the administration of a vaccine. Vaccines stimulate the body’s own immune system to protect the person against subsequent infection or disease.
Access to immunisation varies greatly across the world. A child in a developing country is many times more likely to die of a vaccine-preventable disease than a child from an industrialised one.
Malaria is a common and serious tropical disease transmitted by mosquitoes and characterised by high fever. In 2010, there were an estimated 216 million cases of malaria and approximately 655,000 deaths, mostly among African children. As well as young children malaria is also dangerous for pregnant women, causing severe anaemia, miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight and maternal death. Malaria traps families and communities in a downward spiral of poverty, disproportionately affecting poor people who have limited access to healthcare and for whom loss of income and education has an ongoing impact.
Key interventions to control malaria include prompt and effective treatment with artemisinin-based combination therapies; use of insecticidal nets by people at risk; and indoor residual spraying with insecticide to control the vector mosquitoes.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection causes the breakdown of the body’s own system of protection (the immune system). Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the term used to describe the signs, symptoms, infections, and cancers associated with HIV infection. In 2010 an estimated 34 million people were living with HIV, with 60% of global infections in Sub-Saharan Africa.
HIV is spread through sexual intercourse, blood transfusions, the sharing of contaminated needles in healthcare settings, intravenous drug use; from mother to infant; and during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Religious, cultural, political and economic differences mean that different countries have different rates and profiles of infection. It is a complex social issue which involves changing attitudes and behaviours. Antiretroviral drugs, combined with good nutrition and healthcare to fend off opportunistic infections, can limit the effects of HIV. However, there is no effective cure for HIV.
HIV has a devastating impact on individuals, families and communities, and is reversing decades of progress. The pressures of illness and caring for sick family members can push households into poverty.
HIV/AIDS attacks people in their most productive years, orphaning children, disrupting food production, the economy and the knowledge base of society. Heavy burdens are placed on already weak health services.
Water and sanitation
Around 1.5 million children die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by lack of safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and appropriate hygiene practices. Diseases may be caused by drinking water that is contaminated by human or animal waste, insects which breed in water, or parasites. The energy expended carting water long distances also has a health and time cost on women and children. Improved access to water, a knowledge of hygiene, and management practice as it relates to financing, building and maintaining the necessary infrastructure can lead to improved health.