Global health progress has stagnated, putting countless lives at risk, WHO warns
The annual WHO Health Statistics Report says the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the ongoing decline in progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.
- 19 May 2023
- 4 min read
- by Linda Geddes
The World Health Organization has called for a substantial increase in investments in health and health systems, as data reveals that progress on key health indicators has stagnated since 2015, amid the growing threat posed by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and climate change.
Even before the arrival of COVID-19, progress against many global health indicators had slowed following significant improvements in maternal and child health since 2000 and a reduction in the incidence of infectious disease, deaths from NCDs and injuries during the same period.
One of the report’s most striking findings was the number of years of life lost for every death caused by COVID-19. During 2020 and 2021, it was responsible for 14.9 million excess deaths and 336.8 million years of life lost globally.
The pandemic has set things back even further, contributing to inequalities in access to high-quality health care, routine immunisation and financial hardship due to healthcare costs. As a result, improving trends in malaria and TB have been reversed, and fewer people were treated for neglected tropical diseases, the WHO's annual World Health Statistics report found.
"The message is clear: the world is off track to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, and unless we pick up the pace, we risk losing countless lives that could have been saved as well as failing to improve the quality of life for all," said Samira Asma, WHO Assistant Director-General for Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact.
One of the report's most striking findings was the number of years of life lost for every death caused by COVID-19. During 2020 and 2021, it was responsible for 14.9 million excess deaths and 336.8 million years of life lost globally.
"This means that, on average, each death directly or indirectly attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic... led to a loss of more than 22 years of life – equivalent to over 5 years of life loss every second," the report said.
The pandemic has also knocked many health-related indicators further off-track – including reversing increasing trends in immunisation coverage against diseases such as measles, human papillomavirus (HPV), and diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.
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Service disruptions resulting from the pandemic have similarly reversed progress towards reducing the incidence of malaria and tuberculosis and meant that fewer people were treated for neglected tropical diseases.
The report drew attention to the growing threat posed by NCDs – particularly cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes. These accounted for 61% of annual deaths in 2000, and now account for nearly three quarters of all deaths globally. If the current trend continues, NCDs will be responsible for about 86% of deaths by 2048.
“The report sends a stark message on the threat of non-communicable diseases, which take an immense and increasing toll on lives, livelihoods, health systems, communities, economies and societies.”
– Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General
This increase is mainly being driven by population growth and ageing. The good news is that, at an individual level, the overall risk of dying from chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer has been declining worldwide since 2000 – although deaths due to diabetes increased by 3% over the same period.
However, progress has slowed since the beginning of 2015, when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – devised to help tackle the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world – were introduced. Based on current projections, none of the WHO regions will achieve the SDG target of a one third reduction in premature deaths from NCDs by 2030.
"The report sends a stark message on the threat of non-communicable diseases, which take an immense and increasing toll on lives, livelihoods, health systems, communities, economies and societies," said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "[It] calls for a substantial increase in investments in health and health systems to get back on track towards the Sustainable Development Goals."
This year's report included a dedicated section on climate change and health for the first time. "This is to recognise the importance of climate change on global population health moving forward," said Dr Haidong Wang, head of WHO's Monitoring, Forecasting and Inequalities Unit, and technical lead for the report.
Weather events such as storms, extreme heat, floods, droughts and wildfires can affect health directly and indirectly, increasing the risk of deaths, NCDs, the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, and health emergencies.
To combat such challenges, the report called on countries to build more climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable health systems, and promote actions that both reduce carbon emissions and improve health – such as walking or cycling to work and consuming less meat.
"The world must heed the lessons of the last two decades, including the tragedy of these pandemic years," said Ghebreyesus. "One of the most important of those is the knowledge that we have it in our power to avoid unnecessary deaths and illness, and create stronger, more equitable and resilient health systems and societies."