19.02.2020 |

Health and future of the world's children at risk, Lancet Commission

A future for the world’s children? (Photo: CC0)

Today’s children are facing an uncertain future: Climate change, environmental damage, migration and conflict, economic inequality and exploitative marketing practices threaten the health and future of children across the globe. This is the sad message of “A Future for the World’s Children?”, a new report published by the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission consisting of 40 child and adolescent health experts. The international team finds that not even a single country is adequately protecting children’s health, their environment and their futures. “Despite improvements in child and adolescent health over the past 20 years, progress has stalled, and is set to reverse,” according to Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Co-Chair of the Commission. “It has been estimated that around 250 million children under five years old in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential, based on proxy measures of stunting and poverty. But of even greater concern, every child worldwide now faces existential threats from climate change and commercial pressures,” she added.

The report introduces a new global index of “child flourishing” in 180 countries, assessing performance with regard to measures of child survival, wellbeing, sustainability and equity. It includes data on child health, education and nutrition, as well as data on greenhouse gas emissions or income gaps in those countries. The authors find that the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, while excessive carbon emissions, which are disproportionately caused by wealthier countries, threaten the future of all children worldwide. According to the index, children in Norway, the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, France and Ireland have the best chance at survival and well-being. At the lower end of the scale are low-income countries, such as Central African Republic, Chad, and Somalia, which perform poorly on both child survival and thriving.

If per capita CO2 emissions are taken into account, the picture changes: Then, the top countries trail behind, with Norway ranking 156, the Republic of Korea 166, and the Netherlands 160. These three countries emit 210% more CO2 per capita than their 2030 target allows. The US, Australia and Saudi Arabia are among the ten worst emitters. If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100 in line with business-as-usual scenarios, this would have devastating health consequences for children due to the inundation of coastal cities and small island nations, increased mortality from heatwaves, the proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, as well as malnutrition caused by disrupted food production systems. The only countries on track to meet CO2 per capita emission targets, which also perform fairly (among the top 70) on child flourishing, are Albania, Armenia, Grenada, Jordan, Moldova, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Uruguay and Viet Nam.

The report also highlights the threat posed to children by harmful marketing practices. “Children around the world are enormously exposed to advertising from business, whose marketing techniques exploit their developmental vulnerability and whose products can harm their health and wellbeing,” the authors write. “Companies make huge profits from marketing products directly to children and promoting addictive or unhealthy commodities, including fast foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol, and tobacco, all of which are major causes of non-communicable diseases.” Children’s exposure to commercial marketing of junk food and sugary beverages is associated with the consumption of unhealthy foods, overweight and obesity. The report links predatory marketing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. The number of obese children and adolescents increased from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016, an 11-fold increase. The authors point out that industry self-regulation does not work.

The Commission calls for a radical rethink on child health, offering 10 recommendations to build a new global movement for the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents. One specific recommendation is to stop CO2 emissions with the utmost urgency, in order to preserve the planet for the next generation. In addition, the experts call for new policies and investment in all sectors to work towards child health and rights. Countries should also tighten national regulation of harmful commercial marketing. “From the climate crisis to obesity and harmful commercial marketing, children around the world are having to contend with threats that were unimaginable just a few generations ago,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “It is time for a rethink on child health, one which places children at the top of every government’s development agenda and puts their well-being above all considerations.” (ab)

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