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Global Perspective

group photo
(l-r) Shannon Márquez, PhD, MEng; Anthony Capon, BMedSci, MBBS, PhD, FAFPHM; Tolullah "Tolu" Oni, MBBS, MRCP, MPH, DFPH, MD; Waleska Teixeira Caiaffa, MD, MPH, PhD; Siddarth Agarwal, MBBS; and Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH

By Courtenay Harris Bond

The human species is a force in nature that is permanently changing the fossil record - and not in positive ways.

That is what Anthony Capon, a professor of planetary health at the University of Sydney in Australia explained in a session entitled “Urban Health in Global Perspective: The Challenges and Opportunities of Global Urban Growth.” He was one of four panelists from throughout the world to talk about the subject of global health.

“Our geoscience colleagues are now arguing that we’re leaving the Holocene for a new epoch, an epoch of humanity in which we are now changing planetary systems to such an extent that we’ll see this in the fossil record,” Capon said.

The new epoch, the Anthropocene, is a concept inspired by an international commission that published a report in 2015 outlining how we have made a lot of progress from a biomedical perspective but have done so at great cost to the environment.

“By almost any measure the human population is now healthier than ever before,” Capon said. “But to achieve this we’ve exploited the planet at an unprecedented rate” through increased carbon dioxide emissions, deforestation, and many other factors.

“Future generations will look back, and they will wonder why we didn’t act,” Capon said in a follow-up interview. “Because we know enough to act, we’re just not making the changes that we need to make.”

He said the Anthropocene is a potentially dangerous period of disruption. “And we need to understand what’s ahead, whether it’s climate change, loss of biodiversity, toxic pollution of ecosystems, or, importantly, urbanization ... which has potentially great positives for health but also great risks for health.”

To slow our devolution, he said, the world needs to move from a highly consumptive economy to one that emphasizes reducing, reusing and recycling. For instance, nearly 30 percent of the world’s total agricultural land is used to produce food that is never eaten, Capon said.

Forest conservation reduces disease risks. Air pollution in part caused by lighting fires to clear forests in order to raise cattle - causes approximately seven million deaths a year. And more and more people are dying during extreme weather events caused by climate change.

“Cities are a key part of the challenge but also the opportunity,” Capon said.

For instance, urban planners and politicians can help reduce air pollution, provide green spaces, improve watershed conservation, increase access to healthy food, and build resilience to floods, storms, and drought.

“At an individual level, we can all play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions: A vegetable rich diet is better for our health and planetary health,” he said.

Here’s what the other presenters had to say:

Dr. Tolullah Oni, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said non-communicable diseases, such as hypertension, were rising in her country - just as they are in cities in the developed world. “We’re really seeing a transition to the kind of risk factors that are more prevalent in the urban context,” Oni said, citing high blood pressure, diabetes, and mood disorders as health conditions that are becoming more prevalent.

Siddharth Agarwal, executive director of the Urban Health Resource Center in New Delhi, India, spoke about the importance of empowering communities to affect change.

Teaching women how to form health groups and negotiate with government entities through petitions has helped improve the well-being of impoverished populations in India. Even simple measures, such as community members building an earthen bridge over a drain they once had to wade through daily, can impact community health, Agarwal said.

Dr. Waleska Teixeira Caiaffa, a professor of epidemiology and public health at Federal University of Minas Gerais and director of the Observatory for Urban Health in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, highlighted how very simple structures for physical activity in deprived neighborhoods throughout Belo Horizonte have greatly increased local health and become a national initiative.