Today (7th April) is World Health Day, an annual awareness event established by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a platform to highlight significant global health issues. The theme for this year’s event – ‘Building a fairer, healthier world’ – seeks to address inequalities that are severely impacting the health of millions of people all over the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the spotlight once again on the wide gulf between wealthy and poorer communities. People living and working in areas of high deprivation have been hardest hit by the virus and the efforts to contain it. Those living in poverty, with fewer employment opportunities, poor quality housing and difficulty fulfilling even the most basic of needs are the most vulnerable in society due to the environment they live in, and are already more likely to suffer from poor physical and mental health and a higher rate of premature deaths.
As part of the World Health Day initiative, the WHO is leading a campaign to encourage world leaders to take steps to improve living and working conditions for all, and remove barriers to accessibility of quality healthcare. Tackling the root causes of social deprivation and identifying health inequalities will help lead to improved lifestyles and a reduction in preventable illnesses and deaths.
In the UK, a recent report by Public Health England found that, between January 2003 and December 2018, over a third of deaths in England were attributable to socioeconomic inequality. People living in the most deprived areas have a reduced life expectancy of up to ten years compared with those in the least deprived areas. They also spend on average an extra nineteen years suffering from poor health and are statistically more likely to develop chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, COPD and heart disease. There is also greater prevalence of health issues attributable to drug and alcohol use.
Inequalities have become even more pronounced during the pandemic as people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been disproportionally affected by the virus, with a mortality rate more than twice that of the more affluent communities.
Based on learnings observed throughout the crisis, the government set out its plans at the end of March to transform the public health system into one that is more robust and fit for purpose. The proposed reforms will make public health a priority and see more joined up working between the government, the NHS and other partners to address the socioeconomic and environmental factors that contribute to health inequalities.
A key strand of the government’s new strategy is the focus on health improvement and the prevention of illness. The aim is to promote and increase access to information, support and screening services to empower people to take control of their own physical and mental health, and to make healthier lifestyle choices.
For those living in areas of high deprivation, the new system seeks to redress the balance and encourage change for the better through health education, interventional programmes, and the provision of quality accessible services in the places where they are most needed. It is hoped that the outcome of this will be a reduction in the number of people developing preventable illnesses, and improved mental health.
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