By Dr. Sandra Curtis
Banning bisphenols and phthalates, the chemicals used to give plastics their firmness or flexibility, should be center stage with the world’s health practitioners and policy makers. With non-communicable diseases (NCDs) now the central focus of global health challenges, specifically obesity, diabetes, and cancer, these harmful chemicals, acknowledged endocrine disruptors, have been correlated to each of the NCDs.
A major shift has occurred in the health problems facing the world’s population today from years past. Infectious diseases are no longer the most significant challenge. Rather, chronic NCDs have reached top priority for treatment.
Over 2,400 attendees gathered in Berlin, Germany, for three days in mid-October, for the World Health Summit. Under balmy autumn skies, researchers, practitioners, and policy leaders from around the globe reviewed and explored existing health problems and how to address them.
Technology has become a fast track tool for addressing treatment innovation. The closing dinner featured live addresses by Bill Gates, Founder of Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, and Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway.
Low cost models for digital health care information systems offer the opportunity for tracking and sharing critical individual health data for treatment. The Mobile Health Care Wallet project being piloted in Kenya can offer affordable care for hypertension and diabetes. Another focus of treatment innovation is on better alignment and coordination for data collection of necessary health information need for an integrated treatment plan. Further focus is on standardizing the training and curriculum for front-line, in country health care workers.
Quick mobilization for action should there be an infectious disease outbreak became front and center after the Ebola crisis in West Africa (in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) which began in 2014. The worldwide response led health authorities to create a crisis intervention framework within which significant money can be raised within 24 hours to address the needs. That ability was dramatically evident in containment and treatment of the recent Sept. Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The connection between poverty and NCDs was reiterated in numerous sessions, reinforcing the need for more investment in health by governments that intersect policies across governmental departments, as well as the need for public/private partnerships. Champions within and outside governments are needed for advocate for such agendas.
Iran’s Ministry of Health and Medical Education offered a model which highlights such a coordinated effort between public and government entities. With NCDs causing 80% of Iranian deaths, schools have become the lead agencies for teaching young children messaging to take home, like smoking is bad for health, along with the creation of neighborhood health clubs. They have even helped bakers to reduce the salt in the bread they make. The Ministry is collecting data to show how such community investments will pay off in reducing NCDs.
However, examples of public/private collaborations are a major challenge, as pointed out by a Kenyan specialist I met on a bus ride back from the Summit’s final dinner. This doctor had trained and worked in Germany prior to returning to his homeland to complete his career. He noted with great disillusionment that given the religious fundamentalist influence supporting the government, people actually believed that prayer would heal them rather than following doctor’s orders.
Breast cancer rates are projected to rise dramatically in Africa as are total cancer rates in Latin America. Early intervention must be a key contributor; however, many cultural obstacles persist. For instance, while early detection is critical to save lives, women may need to get permission from their husbands or fathers to see a doctor. Often, they seek treatment when the disease has progressed dangerously. It is estimated that 30-50% of cancers can be prevented. Further, treatments that may be available in Europe or North America are often not accessible in other parts of the world.
Aligning human health and planetary health echoed frequently throughout the summit. Calls for better data collection to understand food consumption which lead to obesity are needed with corresponding methods for changing consumer behavior. Food insecurity affects over 70% of the African population, hence, addressing how and what people grow and eat is critical, along with reducing food waste and enhancing preservation methods that do not include the harmful chemicals in plastic. It’s a complex problem – the need to develop new agricultural methods to enhance food production alongside the need to develop storage methods that utilize some other means than the current plastics on the market whose very composition due to the chemicals within them create a health hazard from its use.
How is Plastic Pollution Coalition contributing to address the broad issues confronting participants in the World Health Summit? The chief global action arm for implementation of health goals remains the World Health Organization (WHO). Within WHO’s Nurturing Childhood Framework lie the seeds for significant potential action to make the health connection between the chemical in plastics. We see a critical effort needed to integrate the recent policy announcement of the American Association of Pediatrics and the subsequent statement from the Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) about limiting the noted bisphenols and phthalates into the WHO Nurturing Childhood Framework.
That’s one place we will be employing our efforts.
Simultaneously, we are expanding the behavioral change research we began with ReThink Plastic to pregnant women and teens through health care facilities and colleges/universities. In June 2019, we’ll be working with coalition member UPSTREAM to sponsor a health summit focused on establishing the state of scientific information on the same harmful chemicals in take-out foodware.
Stay tuned for more information and updates.