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Asia's Cities Increasingly Unhealthy, says WHO - 2003-10-14

The World Health Organization is warning that the Asia's booming cities are increasingly unhealthy environments, putting people at risk for disease outbreaks and other health problems.

On a typical day in Hong Kong, traffic is heavy and so is the air pollution. While the city's leaders are conscious about monitoring and improving air quality, many residents crossing the busy roads hold tissues to their face hoping to counter the effects of breathing motor fumes.

The World Health Organization says 1.5 million people in Asian cities die each year from diseases related to air pollution. About one-half million deaths can be attributed to sulfur dioxide.

Susan Macado, a regional health promotion advisor for the WHO, says that rapid urbanization causes many health problems, some of which are related to social issues. "Where you have a lot of air pollution or a lot of social disintegration coming from city life, these are still considered risks for health," she said.

The U.N. health agency says conditions in many of Asia's congested cities are worsening, making city residents more prone to disease outbreaks such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, tuberculosis and dysentery.

The U.N. agency says rapidly growing cities attract huge migrant populations that put pressure on drainage, water, housing and health-care systems.

"When we have a lot of migration into the cities, many are not prepared to accept huge populations and so we see diminishing health when we have congestion in the cities," said Susan Macado.

The World Health Organization is hosting a conference to discuss these issues beginning Wednesday in Manila. Topping the agenda is its suggestion that countries can help their cities cope by giving city administrations more power.

The agency also hopes to convince Asia's governments to form a regional alliance for sharing ideas on controlling air pollution, poor sanitation, teenage pregnancy, and disasters such as fire and floods.

About 80 officials from 15 countries will attend the conference, including Japan, China Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.