Physical and mental health

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“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

– Definition of “health”, World Health Organisation, 1948.[1]

The right to health for all is a fundamental human right. Globally, there has been huge progress in health over the last century although these improvements have not been equal across countries.

In developed countries, improvements in nutrition, sanitation, water supplies, hygiene, and living and working conditions brought major improvements in health and life expectancy. Vaccines, antibiotics and improved technology have contributed to saving the lives of millions and taming diseases such as smallpox and diptheria. In many developed countries, average life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last century – by around 30 years.

However gaps in health outcomes, both within and between countries, are higher than ever before. Differences in life expectancy between the richest and poorest countries exceed 40 years. Annual government expenditure on health ranges from $20 per person to more than $6,000.[2] New global health threats have also emerged, such as HIV/AIDS which took the lives of 2 million people in 2007 and a further 33 million people were estimated to be living with HIV, two-thirds of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria continues to kill one child every 30 seconds, and there has been almost no improvement in maternal health since 1990, the baseline measurement for progress against the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet at the same time in the developed world, the comforts attained during the 20th century have also led to changing health trends, with cardiovascular disease the number-one killer, followed by cancer. More than half the adults in the US are either moderately or morbidly overweight.[3]

Recent studies have also shown an increase in mental ill-health at a global level.[4]

See also: Mental Health

Progress in Health

The World Health Organisation’s report on the half-way point to the Millennium Development Goals outlined the following progress in health:

  • The proportion of under-nourished children under five years of age declined from 27% in 1990 to 20% in 2005.
  • Some 27% fewer children died before their fifth birthday in 2007 than in 1990.
  • Maternal mortality has barely changed since 1990.
  • One third of 9.7 million people in developing countries who need treatment for HIV/AIDS were receiving it in 2007.
  • MDG target for reducing the incidence of tuberculosis was met globally in 2004.
  • 27 countries reported a reduction of up to 50% in the number of malaria cases between 1990 and 2006.
  • The number of people with access to safe drinking-water rose from 4.1 billion in 1990 to 5.7 billion in 2006. About 1.1 billion people in developing regions gained access to improved sanitation in the same period.[5]

Measuring Progress in Health

The World Health Organisation’s World Health Statistics 2009 provides a wide range of data on global health indicators, as well as a summary of progress towards the health-related aspects of the Millennium Development Goals.

The Human Development Index measures life expectancy, knowledge and standard of living across all countries.

Links to other dimensions of progress

Improvements in health can assist progress in other areas and vice-versa. For example, a healthy population stiumulates economic growth, more people are able to work and contribute to society. On the other hand, when there is a large population requiring medical care, it can create a financial burden. Different types of economic activity can also affect human health. The burning of fossil fuels, for example, contributes to air pollution and a variety of other health concerns.[6]

Progress in health related events


World Health Organisation

OECD: Health<span id=”fck_dom_range_temp_1243429405568_762″ />

OECD Health Statistics

Global Health Progress

Health in School-aged Children: Report for developed countries by the WHO

Gates Foundation

Measures of Australia’s Progress

See also




External Links

Health, Nutrition and Population Statistics Data from The World Bank, starting from 1960.

Thematic Health Nutrition Population Data from The World Bank.