What Are the Greatest Health Risks in the 21st Century? (2024)

In the 21st century, health care leaders and providers are facing a myriad of population health challenges. They need to develop new approaches to address the many complex issues that face them.

The greatest health risks in the 21st century include climate change, air pollution, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), and antibiotic resistance. These threats are changing the landscape of global health and pose a major challenge to health systems around the world.

1. Climate Change

The world is warming faster than at any time in history due to the greenhouse gases that we are releasing into the atmosphere. This extra heat is making the world’s climate system shift, changing weather patterns and disrupting the usual balance of nature.

Scientists say we need to keep global temperatures below 1.5C to avoid catastrophic impacts on our planet and its people. But we can’t do that without your help.

A key way you can take action is to make sure your government is doing what it can to reduce carbon emissions. That could mean urging your representatives to enact new laws that limit carbon pollution and require polluters to pay for the carbon they produce.

You can also offset your own emissions through a reputable green project. This way, you’re not only reducing your own contribution to the problem, but you’re also helping others do the same. For example, the UN Climate Convention has a portfolio of dozens of projects around the world.

2. Air Pollution

Air pollution is the contamination of the air, either indoors or outdoors, with gases, fine particles, or liquid droplets that harm the health of humans, animals, and plants. The most common sources are power plants, industrial facilities, motor vehicles, and forest fires.

The most common health risks associated with air pollution are short-term respiratory infections, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It also causes heart disease and lung cancer.

Reducing pollution at its source can have a significant impact on people’s health, and is highly cost-effective. Reductions in pollution decrease respiratory symptoms, school absenteeism, clinic visits, hospitalizations, and premature births.

A wide range of air pollutants, including PM2.5, ozone, and carbon monoxide, are known to cause adverse effects on human health. These chemicals are produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, particularly coal, and many other processes, including iron and steel production, chemical manufacturing, and energy generation.

3. Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs)

NCDs (non-communicable diseases) are a collection of chronic conditions, generally slow-progressing and long-lasting, that may be the result of genetic, physiological or behavioral factors. The most common NCDs include cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases.

According to WHO, these non-communicable diseases account for three-quarters of the global deaths. These diseases kill 41 million people a year, with 86% of premature deaths coming from low- and middle-income countries.

These diseases are primarily a result of tobacco use, physical inactivity and unhealthy diets. These behaviors are often a precursor to developing NCDs, particularly in young children and adolescents.

WHO identifies prevention as a top priority. The report outlines an ambitious goal to reduce the risk of death from any of the four main NCDs between 30 and 70 years by one-third by 2030. It calls for increased investments in prevention and treatment, which could generate net economic benefits of $2.7 trillion by 2030.

4. Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotics are medications used to prevent and treat infections caused by bacteria. They are important medicines that have helped to improve health and reduce illness and death from conditions such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.

However, over time some bacteria can become resistant to these drugs. These bacteria are able to grow and spread more easily than others, making them harder to kill with antibiotics.

Resistance is a serious public health problem that has global consequences. It is becoming harder to treat many infections, and if left untreated they can lead to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs, and increased mortality.

Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics through a mutation in their DNA or by acquiring genes for antibiotic resistance from other bacteria. This is known as horizontal gene transfer. Other factors that can increase the rate of resistance include excessive use of antibiotics, inappropriate waste disposal and poor personal hygiene. These practices can be changed through vaccination, hand washing and other measures.

What Are the Greatest Health Risks in the 21st Century? (2024)
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