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Report: Preventable Health Risk Factors Account for 40 Percent of Diseases - 2003-09-17


Smoking, alcohol abuse, AIDS, contaminated water. These are just some of the conditions that are responsible for nearly half of premature deaths around the world. A new study concludes that all of these health risks are preventable.

The study conducted by international public health researcher Majid Ezzati and colleagues looked at 20 preventable health risk factors around the world. Mr. Ezzati, who is with the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, says the risk factors, including sanitation, malnutrition, AIDS, and alcohol abuse, are responsible for about 40 percent of diseases and almost 50 percent of premature deaths globally.

"We looked at the health benefits of these risks working together, [and found they] account for about 10-years lost of healthy life around the world, and the number is much higher in parts of the world that currently have very low levels of health and life expectancy," he explained.

According to the authors, elimination of all 20 preventable risk factors would raise the average life expectancy from 56 to 65 years of age in developed countries, and more than 16 years in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

The study, funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, was published in the medical journal The Lancet. The conclusions are based on existing research of health trends in 14 regions of the world, including developed countries.

One preventable threat to health, according to the study, is smoking. The authors estimate 900 million of the world's one billion smokers live in developing countries. Studies have shown that smoking contributes to cancer and heart disease.

Mr. Ezzati believes too much money is spent on trying to cure these diseases instead of preventing them. "For some diseases, such as tuberculosis, treatment is actually a way of prevention. But we believe there has been an over-emphasis on treatment versus reducing the causes of disease," he said. "This study shows how enormous the benefits of dealing with causes of disease are."

Michael Thun, head of epidemiologic research at the American Cancer Society, says tobacco control efforts are vastly underfunded compared to the amount of money cigarette manufacturers spend in developing countries to promote their product. He says a treaty on tobacco control drafted by the World Health Organization would limit cigarette advertising, especially aimed at children.