Urbanization and health in spotlight on World Health Day

World Health Day is celebrated on 7th April to mark the founding of World Health Organization. Each year, the WHO selects a key global health issue and organizes international, regional and local events on the Day and throughout the year to highlight the selected area. World Health Day 2010 is dedicated to urbanization and health. This year's campaign '1000 cities, 1000 lives', highlights the impact of urban living on human health and encourages efforts to make cities healthier places for people to live. Read more

The global aims of the campaign are that:
(i) 1000 cities open up public places to health, whether it is activities in the parks, meetings in town halls, cleaning-up campaigns, closing off portions of streets to motorized vehicles, etc.
(ii) 1000 stories of real life urban health champions, whose actions have impacted health in their cities, are collected to act as role models.

So the emphasis is rightly on making ourselves healthy by keeping our surroundings and environment robust and disease free. Health is an embodiment of healthy body, mind and soul. It is a state where we enjoy ourselves in tandem with nature and our environment. We are healthy only if we can feel this at the mental, spiritual, physical, emotional, and social levels.

A change in our present lifestyles for the better will go a long way in reducing our medical bills. This involves, not just eating the right type of food, but also having the right thoughts and performing the right actions. As parents, elders and teachers, we must not only inculcate good eating habits in our children and train them in basic hygiene, but also teach them to be good human beings.

A lot many diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, etc owe their high incidence due to the high fat and low fibre diets and due to a total lack of physical exercise. Even urban educated parents feel proud to be able to afford pizzas and burgers of multinational food chains for their kids. They show off their affluence by buying loads of goodies (which really are baddies) and cans of colas for their 2 and 3 years old darlings, thus developing their taste buds for fast foods. Homemade food and traditional cuisine becomes old fashioned for them. Even the poor people do not eat nutritious food. They very often depend on roadside food which is cheap, oily and full of fat. Bread, Lays Chips and colas have now inundated even rural India. Experts rightly believe that it is important to lose fat and not just weight.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine says that China now has a diabetes ‘epidemic’ as obesity rates rise on the back of growing affluence, with one in 10 Chinese adults now afflicted. India and, perhaps, other Asian countries are no better. In India, a significant number of overweight children coexist with those who are undernourished. Obesity affects mental health as much as physical health. It makes one shy and introvert.

Computers and cell phones complete the parents’ pride and neighbours’ envy syndrome, making the children lose the appetite for any outdoor activity, be it walking, running or playing. Internet and video games addiction has been recognized as an affliction having serious repercussions in many Asian countries. So it is important to revive the ‘park culture’ in colonies and to encourage sports and yoga in schools. Cycling should be promoted as a fashionable activity so that the youth and children take to it whole heartedly.

While we love to ape the West as far as Dominos, Pizza Huts and McDonalds’ are concerned, we seem to be happily unconcerned when it comes to littering our surroundings. Our lessons in basic hygiene are confined to throwing our garbage in front of someone else’s house or, better still, on the road. Only if we could inculcate some civic sense in us, a lot many infectious diseases can be controlled in a better manner. I have often seen children of the so called elitist families throwing away chocolate and ice cream wrappers, banana/orange peel, tobacco pouches anywhere and everywhere, what to talk of the slum children. Spitting and urinating on the streets comes naturally to the Indian males. The Supreme Court has made Environmental Education a compulsory subject in all classes till plus two. It would have been better if a compulsory fine was imposed on us for making our surroundings garbage dumps.

Parents inadvertently sign the death warrant of their beloved underage sons and daughters by managing to get driving licenses for them or by keeping their licensed guns and pistols within easy reach of them. Many a serious accidents have been caused by this, seriously endangering the health of the victims.

Emotional and mental ill health manifests itself when we are not at peace with ourselves. Violent and aggressive thoughts create negativity and fill our minds with the venom of jealousy, anger, and hatred. The reality shows on television and the innumerable contests organized for children, whet the parents’ appetite for earning quick money. Little do they (and the organizers) realize that by throwing children in the wild jungle of cruel, cut throat competition at a tender age, they cause irreparable harm to their psyche and make them emotionally sick. Of course there is need to nurture everyone’s talents, but not just for the sake of monetary gains. Why can’t we make our children (and ourselves) dance, sing, play, just for the sheer joy of it. The rat race is really transforming us from healthy humans to sick rats.

Experts at a regional health care conference held recently in Singapore agreed that Asia's health care systems are straining under the weight of lifestyle ailments linked to rising affluence while confronting new and old infectious diseases like bird/swine flu and tuberculosis. Addiction to tobacco chewing and cigarette smoking is another major factor jeopardizing the health of millions in India and else where. All efforts at eradicating this evil seem to pale in front of the aggressive marketing tactics of cigarette manufacturing giants who have the license to sell this poison in the name of macho-ism and stress reliever. Tobacco consumption in any form is directly linked to lung and respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, asthma etc. Only if the Indian public would chew simple condiments like anise, clove or cardamom instead of the deadly tobacco laced pan masala!

A country’s health depends upon the health of its children. And only a healthy mother can beget a healthy baby. However, in most Indian families, the health of the women folk is never given any priority. In her traditional role as wife and mother she is supposed to look after others at the cost of her own health. Indian society still believes in nurturing gender oriented roles. Boys are encouraged to become reckless and rowdy, and girls are tamed to become sheepish. This indoctrination later on manifests itself in brash/ pompous husbands, and mal/undernourished mothers who have no right over their mind and body. Women are forced to suffer indignities in various forms – aborting the female foetus; getting killed for bringing insufficient dowry; being raped and molested anywhere and everywhere. A nation that does not respect its womenfolk is indeed a sick nation.

We need to bring about reforms which ensure that healthcare programmes deal not only with vaccination and sanitation issues but also educate people about their diets, lifestyles and moral values. If we harbour thoughts of peace, love and nonviolence and do not overindulge in blatant shows of affluence, then truly we can make our lives healthier and full of positive energy. To be happy (and hence healthy) we have to dispense happiness and not hatred.

Let all of us (and not just 1000) join the global movement to contribute in our own small ways to make, not only 1000 cities, but all cities and villages of the world physically and mentally healthy.

Shobha Shukla
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS), has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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