Image of world maps as part of article on Health Reform in the United States.

2019: The Ten Greatest Threats to Health Worldwide

The world we live in is facing multiple health challenges. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a report detailing the top ten major threats to global health.  From outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, growing rates of obesity, to the health impacts of environmental pollution and climate change, these issues are relevant in our approach to health reform and health policy in the United States.

Here are the planet’s ten biggest health threats according to WHO:

1.    Air pollution and climate change

According to WHO, nine out of ten people breathe polluted air every day. In 2019, air pollution is considered by WHO as the greatest environmental risk to health. Microscopic pollutants in the air can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging the lungs, heart and brain, killing 7 million people prematurely every year from diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart and lung disease.

2. Noncommunicable diseases

Seventy percent of deaths worldwide are due to noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

According to WHO, the five risk factors driving increases in noncommunicable diseases are tobacco use, alcohol use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, and air pollution. 

3. Influenza

The world will face another influenza pandemic – the only thing not known is when it will hit and how severe it will be. Global defenses are only as effective as the weakest link in any country’s health emergency preparedness and response system WHO says. 

4. Fragile and vulnerable settings

Over 22% of the world’s population lives in fragile settings, which are defined as places where access to basic health care is minimal, often due to being in a state of crisis and having poor health services.

Fragile settings exist in almost all regions of the world, and these are where half of the key targets in the sustainable development goals, including on child and maternal health, remain unmet. 

5. Antimicrobial resistance

The development of antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials are some of modern medicine’s greatest successes. Now, time with these drugs is running out. Antimicrobial resistance – the ability of bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi to resist these medicines – threatens to send us back to a time when we were unable to easily treat infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and salmonellosis. The inability to prevent infections could seriously compromise surgery and procedures such as chemotherapy. 

Drug resistance is driven by the overuse of antimicrobials in people, but also in animals, especially those used for food production, as well as in the environment, according to WHO.

6. Ebola and high-threat pathogens

When it comes to responding to a high-threat pathogen such as Ebola, context is “critical,” according to WHO. The way a high-threat pathogen spreads and impacts a rural area might look very different from the way it would look in urban areas or active conflict zones—making it difficult for health systems and governments to prepare an effective emergency response.

WHO’s current watchlist of high-treat pathogens includes Ebola, Zika, SARS, and disease X—a placeholder for any unknown pathogen that could cause an epidemic.

7. Weak primary care

Primary care is supposed to be the most consistent and accessible form of health care a patient has over their lifetime, WHO explains. But when a country lacks adequate primary care facilities, patients lack affordable and comprehensive care for their needs, which can cause everyday health problems to evolve into health emergencies.

8. Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved. 

Measles, for example, has seen a 30% increase in cases globally. The reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence (including the United States). 

9. Dengue

About 40% of the world is at risk of becoming infected with dengue, a mosquito-borne illness that infects 390 million people each year and kills up to 20% of people with a severe form of the disease, according to WHO.

10. HIV

The progress made against HIV has been enormous in terms of getting people tested, providing them with antiretrovirals (22 million are on treatment), and providing access to preventive measures such as a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP, which is when people at risk of HIV take antiretrovirals to prevent infection). 

However, the epidemic continues to rage with nearly a million people every year dying of HIV/AIDS. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have acquired the infection, and about 35 million people have died.

The list provides an overview of the top 10 health threats WHO and the organization’s partners will target under a five-year strategic plan that kicks off this year. According to WHO, the goal is to ensure one billion more people benefit from access to universal health coverage, one billion more people are protected from health emergencies, and one billion more people enjoy better health and well-being.


For Consideration:

  • Does the WHO list of the top Global Health Risks fit with what you consider to be the top health risks facing the United States?
  • Which risks as noted by WHO should be included in the top health risks faced by Americans?  
  • What other issues do you consider to be the Top Health Risks facing the United States?
  • Many of the top risks defined by WHO are “Social and Environmental Determinants of Health.” What is your view on whether these should be considered part of health reform?

Additional Resources:

Visit the World Health Organization’s web page to learn more about the Top Global Health Threats of 2019.

Review this primer on Social Determinants of Health from NEJM Catalyst.

Go deeper on Social Determinants of Health by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website: Social Determinants of Health: Know What Affects Health

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