Health for the seven billionth child

by Anjali Sastry on October 31, 2011

So, on Halloween 2011, the seven billionth person in the world was born–China or India the most likely birthplace. In a New York Times column this summer, Thomas Friedman laid out his thoughts on the cost us all of living with so many billions of other people: “The Earth is Full”. It makes sobering reading.

A recent news story on the environmental impacts takes on a theme that many US organizations have shied away from in the decades since the 1970s focus on Limits to Growth: that population growth and environmental problems are linked (see my posts on Limits to Growth and my reflections on the topic).

Others discuss the implications for food production, migration, and conflict, with some experts arguing that excess growth is not the problem.

The United Nations Population Fund just released its report, State of World Population 2011. Take a look at the overview for some of the key points, some to celebrate and others as spurs to action. And the site includes data, the full report, photos and videos like this one.

If the world is too crowded, shouldn’t we be working to limit population growth instead of striving for global health in general?

The choice is, I think, a false one. Population growth rates are shaped by many things–of course, we see links to income levels, but beliefs, education, and norms, access to healthcare, and many social and economic factors all play roles. Reproductive health and access to family planning are key aspects of healthcare for everyone. Better health improves the prospects for limiting population growth.

Age distribution of burdent of disease (2004 data) for Low and Middle Income Countries (WHO 08)

In class yesterday we talked about the burden borne by the world’s children. According to The global burden of disease: 2004 update (WHO, 2008), over a third of the world’s burden of disease falls on children. Over 10 million children die every year of preventable causes, but the picture is worse than that horrible statistic conveys: many diseases suffered by children impose penalties throughout their lives by affecting cognitive capacities, physical development, and psychological health.

Philosopher Peter Singer asks us to think about saving a drowning child in a shallow pond you happen to walk by–you’d do it automatically. Why don’t we save a child dying of malaria in Ghana? What are our duties in world where children suffer? I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers, but as we hand out candy to our neighborhood children, it might be worth thinking about! Take a look at Singer’s provocative argument, “The Life You Can Save”.

And since we’re here at MIT and love data, it makes sense to round out this set of resources with Hans Rosling’s 15-minute video: Reducing child mortality – a moral and environmental imperative. In it, he argues that many countries are making good progress towards the goal of reducing child mortality.He also reminds us that it’s time to stop talking about Sub-Saharan Africa as one place. There are some amazing gains to celebrate and important goals to work on as we greet our seven billionth neighbor!

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