Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Unsexy health threats

There are lots of sexy-sounding health problems. Some of the topics du jour include HIV, malaria, and, currently, influenza. But what are the actual leading causes of death, in the U.S. and internationally?

In the U.S., the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, and stroke - all chronic conditions. While pandemic influenza may be causing a lot of morbidity these days, it is chronic disease - caused by obesity, mostly - that cause the greatest number of deaths in the U.S.

Abroad, it's a different story. According to the Global Health Council, the leading causes of death among children are pneumonia and diarrhea, both preventable diseases. Maternal health is also a huge issue; it is the second leading cause of death among women worldwide. These tables from the WHO outline leading causes of death by the country's income level, revealing interesting disparities between low-income countries and high-income countries.

Nicholas Kristof has done a great job reporting about deaths due to pregnancy or childbirth; he quotes the U.N. in a July column, saying " in Pakistan, a woman dies every 35 minutes because of problems from pregnancy or childbirth." He also spoke out about pneumonia: "pneumonia gets very little attention from donors or the public health community, yet it kills more than two million children a year, according to Unicef and the World Health Organization."

This article in the NY Times on October 29 compelled me to blog about this. After all, this blog is devoted to domestic public health issues. But this article was too important to ignore. "Diarrhea kills 1.5 million young children a year in developing countries — more than AIDS, malaria and meaasles combined — but only 4 in 10 of those who need the oral rehydration solution that can prevent death for pennies get it." Diarrhea is, most certainly, not a sexy topic, but it is one that is vital to discuss.

While AIDS continues to be a huge problem that needs attention, especially in certain parts of the world like Africa, these smaller diseases also need equal attention, especially because they are treatable.

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