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More than nine-tenths of the world’s children breathe toxic air, and 600,000 die each year as a result. The impact was central to discussions at the WHO's first global conference on air pollution in Geneva this week.
The economic damage is also huge: ambient air pollution — at crisis point in countries such as India — costs the world more than $5tn a year in welfare losses. Low- and middle-income countries, especially in Africa, suffer the additional burden of high household air pollution from cooking, heating and lighting.
Richer countries are not immune. Campaigners such as The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which is demanding new clean air legislation, stress the link between pollution and climate change, made worse by the emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The WHO's goal is a two-thirds reduction in global deaths from air pollution — “the new tobacco” — by 2030. Without concerted political action and increased investment in energy-efficient power generation, affordable clean fuels, waste management and public transport systems, the target is as ambitious as that for tackling global warming.
Booze and drugs toll A large global study shows the growing amount of illness caused by alcohol and drug use over the past 30 years. Emerging patterns include a growth in drink-related problems in Africa and other low-income areas as the alcohol industry switches target markets from more strictly regulated richer countries. This graphic shows disability-adjusted life years: one DALY can be thought of as one lost year of “healthy” life. (The Lancet Psychiatry)
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Yemen tragedy As the US and UK step up calls for a ceasefire in the war in Yemen, the advent of the rainy season could worsen the country's cholera crisis, which has already killed more than 2,000 people, adding to those killed by conflict and starvation. (NYT, ReliefWeb, Independent)
Hospitals as jails An AP investigation, built on earlier research from the Chatham House think-tank, shows hospitals in more than 30 countries are illegally detaining patients who cannot pay their bills. “It’s the dirty underbelly of global health that nobody wants to talk about,” said one academic. (AP, Chatham House)
India's eyecare revolution India has become a model for low-cost high-quality eyecare after recognising that most of its blindness problem was due to treatable cataracts. NGOs have played a leading role, as has a network of “allied ophthalmic personnel” performing initial evaluations and freeing up hospital capacity. (Devex)
Fighting fake drugs The WHO estimates that 10 per cent of medicines in low- and middle-income countries are of poor quality. Complex international supply chains and wide variations in standards and regulations make the fight against fakes doubly difficult. (Mosaic)
Drugs by drone Trials of vaccine deliveries by drone on Vanuatu could “revolutionise” healthcare for isolated islanders in the Pacific and elsewhere. An “Uber for blood” has been used to deliver blood supplies by drone in Rwanda. (Guardian)
Tobacco troubles Altria said it would stop selling ecigarette flavours aimed at youth such as Apple Cider and Strawberry Brulee, amid concerns from the US regulators over the way vaping is marketed. Experts warned of the environmental problems caused by ecigarette manufacture. Pictures of feet with gangrene and real-life stories are the most effective warnings on packs of tobacco cigarettes. Ghana introduced its own warnings this week. (NYT, Reuters, BMJ Tobacco Control, Ghana News Agency)
Mental health moves Depression has overtaken obesity to become the second most prevalent problem in English medical practices. High-blood pressure is the most common. New money for the NHS, including extra funding for mental health, was outlined in the government's new Budget. (NHS Digital, FT)
Do cell phones cause cancer? “The world's largest study of the issue ends with a 'maybe' and many caveats, and applies only to a long-outdated cell phone frequency.” (NYT)
Food fights Nutrition research is often skewed in pursuit of profit, says a new book. Its author recommends checking “whether the results are biologically plausible; whether the study controlled for other dietary, behavioural, or lifestyle factors that could have influenced its result; and who sponsored it”. Makers of chewing gum, bottled water and pizza bagels are battling for the right to be called “healthy”. A WHO report examines front-of-pack food labelling. (NYT, AP, WHO)
Clinical trials slammed British MPs said a “shocking” 50 per cent of clinical trials did not publish results, leading to a potential erosion of public trust in medicine. Selective non-publication or “publication bias” of results “distorts the published evidence base and is a threat to research integrity”. (UK parliament)
Pill palettes Choosing the colour for a new pill and its marketing is the subject of some serious market research from pharma companies and their brand managers. (BioPharmaDive)
Animal corner China lifted its ban on the scientific and medical use of tiger bones and rhinoceros horn to boost the growth of traditional Chinese medicine around the world. There is better news for mice: new AI tests developed for space science could mean fewer in the lab. Deer antlers are the only mammalian tissue that regenerates rapidly and the genes responsible are also found in humans, making them ideal for studying bone diseases. (FT, The Conversation, Stem Cell Research and Therapy)
Health and the high street A new ranking examines the impact of British high streets on the health and wellbeing of local residents. “Unhealthy” streets feature growing numbers of alcohol stores, fast-food outlets and rows of empty shops, while cafés and vape shops (it claims) add to the positive influences. (Royal Society for Public Health)
Doggy detectives A project from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Durham University and the Medical Detection Dogs charity shows trained sniffer dogs can detect malaria from socks worn by infected children. Canine noses can also sniff out other illnesses such as prostate cancer and people at risk of slipping into a diabetic coma. (LSHTM/YouTube, Wired)
Best from the journals
Pre-term birth Pre-term birth is the leading cause of death for children under five and is a particular problem in poorer countries because of a lack of good newborn care. An estimated 10.6 per cent of births worldwide were pre-term in 2014 and more than 80 per cent of these were in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. (The Lancet)
Mers multiplies Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was identified only in 2013 but has become a global threat. The virus has repeatedly jumped from camels to humans, principally in countries on the Arabian Peninsula (Science)
BMI warning A new study confirms the increasing risks of premature death from excessively low or, more frequently, excessively high body mass index, adding to the growing fears of an obesity epidemic. (The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology)
Life chances New research challenges previous findings that the rich live much longer than the poor. Existing studies assume the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich for the rest of their lives, but this new approach attempts to take into account the movement of people into higher or lower income brackets. (PNAS)
Next-generation neurotechnology Patients paralysed by spinal cord injuries have been helped to walk again by wireless implants that apply precise electrical stimulation to their remaining nerves. Watch our video. (Nature, FT video)
Podcast of the week
The little vaccine that could How an unlikely alliance of scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs teamed up to produce a vaccine for rotavirus, a diarrhoeal disease that was killing half a million children a year. (Geekwire, 22m)
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Thinking outside the pillbox A discussion on the use of art as a tool to help treat mental ill-health. “Art is no magic bullet. Yet, with its propensity for play and ambiguity, it can open up new spaces for us to ask new questions.” (The Conversation)
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