By Elizabeth Witherspoon, Ph.D.
At the October 2019 Executive Committee meeting of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), member states approved placement on next year’s agenda a draft Strategy on Health, Environment, and Climate Change for the Region of the Americas, 2020-2030. This paves the way for stakeholders in the 52 member countries and territories to review and comment on the strategy before it is up for approval in September 2020. PAHO is the specialized health agency of the Inter-American System. It also serves as Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO), the specialized health agency of the United Nations.
“Our expectation is that the strategy will be adopted by all our member states in September 2020,” said Marcello Korc, Ph.D., PAHO unit chief for climate change and environmental determinants of health (CDE/CE).
The strategy is a framework for PAHO and countries in the Region of the Americas to strengthen the response to environmental threats to health over the next decade. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and, more specifically, the Sustainable Health Agenda for the Americas 2018-2030 provides the vision of this strategy. The WHO Global Strategy on Health, Environment, and Climate Change adopted in May 2019 at the World Health Assembly provides its blueprint.
“What is unique about the strategy,” said Agnes Soares da Silva, M.D., PAHO advisor for environmental epidemiology to CDE/CE, “is that it addresses the direct roles and responsibilities of the health sector in responding adequately to major environmental risks as a core public health problem. This includes measuring their impact on health, but also promoting solutions for a cleaner environment that deliver the most benefits for health, therefore empowering the health sector in the conversation with other sectors.”
“The health sector has a responsibility in the field of environmental public health, and they should move forward with that responsibility as a core area,” added Korc.
Components of the strategy include a matrix of four strategic actions, each to be undertaken in four thematic areas. The strategic actions are:
- Improve the performance of environmental public health programs
- Strengthen environmental public health surveillance
- Foster an environmentally responsible and resilient health sector
- Promote environmentally healthy and resilient communities
The thematic areas are:
- Climate Change and Health
- Chemical Safety
- Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene
- Air Quality and Health
The strategy addresses the importance of considering the health impacts of policies on energy, transportation, housing, industry, food systems and agriculture, water and sanitation, and urban planning. It also notes new emerging environmental hazards and issues that affect health: electronic waste, nanoparticles, microplastics, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, water security, transborder air pollution, and shared contaminated watersheds.
PAHO is now disseminating the draft strategy document for feedback from stakeholders through its 27 country offices and WHO Collaborating Centres, including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is a WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences. Korc said that NIEHS’ comments have great significance because of the agency’s research-backed expertise in environmental health.
NIEHS has been collaborating with PAHO on a household air pollution initiative to reduce the health effects of reliance on solid fuels for cooking and heating. Nearly 90 million people are affected by emissions and an estimated 82,000 deaths occur in the Americas annually as a result of the use of solid fuels, according to WHO. PAHO’s 2015-2019 strategic plan set the goal of supporting member states to reduce dependence on solid fuels for cooking.
“We are excited to see PAHO elevate the importance of environmental determinants within the mainstream of public health practice throughout the Americas,” noted John Balbus, M.D., director of the NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre. “NIEHS is helping PAHO to connect with the best environmental health science expertise across the federal agencies to assist them in the formulation and implementation of this strategy.”