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World Health Report: Occupational Illness, Obesity, Smoking And Pollution

By K. P. Foley

Washington, 17 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - In this edition of the RFE/RL Health Report, we will bring you up to date on efforts by the United Nations to make the work place safer for the world's labor force, and an initiative to encourage European governments to address the health problem of obesity.

UN Agencies Sound Alarm Over Occupational Illness

Geneva - The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) are calling for immediate, "ethically correct and economically sound," measures to improve the working conditions of the world's labor force of some 2.5 billion people.

Experts at both of these United Nations agencies contend that unless working conditions are improved, governments will face serious and costly consequences. According to the WHO and the ILO, the global burden of occupational diseases and injuries may increase considerably in the first half of the 21st century. Contributing factors include the increasing transfer of industrial processes to developing countries and improved reporting of occupational injuries and illnesses worldwide.

In a speech at the joint WHO-ILO conference on work-related illnesses held earlier this month in Helsinki, WHO occupational health office director Richard Helmer said the developing world is home to 75 percent of the world's work force. Many of these countries, he said, "lack the technical and social infrastructure to provide protection for their working and non-working populations against hazards of physical, chemical, biological, psychosocial or ergonomic (the process of fitting the job to the worker) character."

Helmer said that what is an economic blessing today, "may lead to considerable deterioration in the health status of working populations of the developing world tomorrow." The UN says evidence already suggests that hundreds of millions of people throughout the world are employed in conditions that breed ill health and are unsafe. According to Jukka Takala, Chief of the ILO's Health and Safety programme, each year work-related injuries and diseases kill an estimated 1.1 million people worldwide. Takala said the number includes around 300,000 fatalities from an estimated 250 million accidents in the workplace.

In addition, the ILO says that more than half of the workers in industrialized countries complain about stress in the workplace. The WHO says job stress and overwork have been associated with sleep disturbance and depression. It says there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that prolonged exposure to job stress is associated with several types of chronic health problems, including cardiovascular diseases, particularly hypertension, and psychological disorders.

The UN agencies say the cost of occupational diseases and injuries is enormous. National and international reports indicate that in 1997, the global economic losses resulting from them reached an estimated four percent of the world's gross national product.

European Health Experts Call For Action On Obesity

London - The current issue of the British Medical Journal reports that European obesity specialists are undertaking an initiative urging their governments to tackle the rising epidemic of obesity in many countries.

According to the Journal report, The European Association for the Study of Obesity announced a series of recommendations for putting obesity on governments' agendas at its annual conference last week in Milan. Members agreed to work with governments to implement measures to improve the management and prevention of obesity and to increase public awareness of diet and physical activity.

In announcing the project, association president Japp Seidell said: "This is the first effort to take action on obesity in Europe. We are not sure where it will lead, but the first step is to achieve a fundamental change in the way we think about obesity." He said that in most European countries, obesity is not seen as a priority and the cost of managing patients is often not reimbursed by government and other health plans.

The Journal noted that the association's initiative has been signed by the national organizations for obesity from 24 European countries. It calls for governments to recognize that obesity is a major cause of ill health and that it poses a high social and economic burden. It further calls on governments to begin the process of developing comprehensive national and European strategies for action on obesity, to support research, and to increase the provision of health services with professional staff qualified to treat obesity.

U.S. Study Says Exercise Helps Smokers Stop

Chicago - Researchers in the United States have published a report which says that an exercise program combined with behavioral training is twice as effective as course work alone at helping women quit smoking.

In a report in the current issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers from the Miriam Hospital and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island said exercising three times a week also prevented otherwise sedentary women from gaining as much of the weight that often accompanies quitting smoking.

The study divided a group of 281 non-exercising women smokers into two groups. One group exercised and the other did not, while all participated in a classroom smoking cessation program.

The study found that those who exercised were twice as likely to quit smoking and that they gained less weight than those who did not, and the results held up one year later.

WHO Report: More Die From Automobile Pollution Than Road Accidents

Geneva - A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) says automobile traffic is the fastest growing source of pollution in Europe, and the WHO says that in some countries, more people are dying from air pollution than from traffic accidents.

The report said long-term air pollution from cars in Austria, France and Switzerland triggered an extra 21,000 premature deaths per year from respiratory or heart diseases, more than the total number of annual traffic deaths in the three countries. The report showed that air pollution from cars caused 300,000 extra cases of bronchitis in children, 15,000 hospital admissions for heart disease and 162,000 asthma attacks in children in the three countries.

The report's findings are being discussed at this week's meeting of more than 70 European health and environment ministers in London. Officials from the 51 members states of the WHO European region are to debate a new charter on transport and the environment. They will also be asked to sign a binding protocol on water and health to halt the re-emergence of diseases such as cholera and typhoid.