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WHO: Health Gap Between Rich, Poor Countries Widening - 2003-12-18

Life expectancy for people in poor countries is going down dramatically, especially in Africa, according to an annual report by the World Health Organization. In its World Health Report, the agency, says HIV/AIDS is the biggest killer in Africa, but other types of non-contageous diseases are also taking a huge toll.

The World Health Organization says drastic action must be taken to narrow the widening health gap between rich and poor countries. In the World Health Report, the agency notes that a girl born in Japan today can expect to live for about 85 years. In comparison, it says a girl born in Sierra Leone, one of Africa's poorest countries, might live for 36 years.

And WHO Director General, Jong-Wook Lee, says a key U.N. strategy for increasing life expectancy in developing countries by 2015 is not working. Dr. Lee says a plan to drastically reduce infant mortality and control infectious diseases is failing because poor countries lack the drugs and other tools they need to keep the children alive.

"At the present rate of progress, it will take not 15 years as planned, but 150 years to reduce child mortality in Africa by two-thirds," said Dr. Lee. "The biggest single cause of death between the age of 15 and 59 is HIV/AIDS, depriving societies of their most productive members and children of their parents."

WHO says three million people died of AIDS this year, most of them in Africa. It notes that only five percent of all people living in the developing world who require anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS actually receive it.

But the reports says there is more to the effort to reduce premature deaths than the fights against AIDS and child mortality. The report says five of the top 10 health risks worldwide are chronic conditions - high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, tobacco and alcohol use, and obesity.

In developing countries, the report says seven out of the 10 child deaths are caused by communicable diseases such as respiratory infections, diarrhoeal diseases and malaria. But, the editor in chief of the World Health Report, Robert Beaglehole, says chronic non-communicable diseases are the biggest killers of adults and have overtaken infectious diseases as the leading causes of death worldwide.

"Fifty seven million deaths will occur around the world this year - 57 million deaths," he emphasized. "Thirty-two million of those deaths, 60 percent will be due to these non-communicable or chronic diseases. Of those 32 million, 16 million deaths will be due to heart disease and stroke, in comparison with the 10 million child deaths under the age of five."

Mr. Beaglehole says death and disability from non-communicable disease is growing in developing countries, but in developed countries the prevalence of these diseases is being reduced among older people who get proper health care. According to the World Health Report, that, and better child health care, have resulted in rising life expectancy in the world's richer countries.