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Hungary Among Most Unhealthy Nations, WHO Official says

  • Stefan Bos

World Health Day this year focuses on the health situation of people living in cities and towns amid concerns that unhealthy lifestyles and pollution in urban areas have led to an increase in cancer rates and heart disease. Wednesday's event comes at a time when the World Health Organization has described Hungary as among the world's most unhealthy nations.

The World Health Organization, or WHO, has urged cities around the world to open up their streets for health activities.

But at this busy road in Hungary's capital Budapest most people don't seem to be prepared for Wednesday's annual World Health Day, or to care about its theme, "1000 cities - 1000 lives".

Thirty-one-year-old Zombor Szabo is among the relative few Hungarians riding a bicycle here.

He suggests that his day job as a construction worker at high rise buildings is far less dangerous than cycling home, between the Hungarian capital's notorious car drivers.

"Sometimes it may happen that cycling in Budapest means life danger," said Zombor Szabo. "The drivers don't really respect cyclists. The most dangerous situation is when they are stopping the car and opening the door without first checking the mirror."

Driver Pal Szemes, the 41-year-old cigarette smoking sales manager at a local natural gas company, admits that a car is seen as a status symbol in post-Communist Hungary.

"Yes, yes, yes it's a typical symbol," said Szemes. "Not too much, but sometimes I went to my company by bus and by tram. And it wasn't comfortable. Because the people smell bad, absolutely not healthy and clean. And it's only 20 minutes between my house and my work place, by bus about one hour. And it's very, very dangerous [to travel] by bicycle."

That worries the WHO chief in Hungary, Dr. Zsofia Pusztai.

She tells VOA that unhealthy lifestyles, including a lack of exercise combined with a large consumption of alcohol, tobacco and fatty food, have contributed to making Hungary one of the most unhealthy nations within the European Union and the rest of the world.

"The health status of the Hungarian population is still quite poor by international standards and is still well below what would be expected for a country of the same socioeconomic development, including the EU member states and the non EU member states as well," she said. "And [if you take] the leading cause of death[including] cardiovascular diseases [and cancer] Hungary is among the highest. If you look at the lung cancer in the male population, actually not [only] in Europe, but in the world, we lead."

Dr. Pusztai says only the newer EU member states Bulgaria and Romania share Hungary's dubious honor of being among the bloc's most unhealthy nations.

The WHO is also concerned about the impoverished Gypsy, or Roma, population in the region, where about one in six babies are born.

Dr. Pusztai hopes World Health Day and related activities this week in towns and cities across Hungary and other countries will highlight the need to prevent health problems.

In addition, she wants the next Hungarian government to spend more on health prevention after this month's parliamentary elections, despite the country's economic crisis.

She regrets that the World Health Day isn't officially held in Budapest.

Dr. Pusztai says it was too complicated to organize it in the apparently unhealthy Hungarian capital, as its 23 districts all have their own local governments - and decision makers.