Report: Time for a Radical Rethink on Child Health

February 18, 2020

A rapidly changing climate and other existential threats are affecting all aspects of children's health and development. A WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission delivers astounding new data and presses for immediate action — while stressing the need to keep kids at the heart of all solutions.

No single country on earth currently provides children with a healthy life — or a climate fit for their future, according to a new report by a Lancet Commission convened by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report, the result of two years of research and analysis by over 40 leading child health experts from around the world, finds that the health and future of every child and adolescent is under immediate threat from three trends: a rapidly changing climate, exploitative marketing practices and rising socioeconomic inequalities.

Children, adolescents and families in the south of Madagascar are feeling the effects of a multi-year drought that has left 70 to 80 percent of the population impoverished. UNICEF works with partners to improve access to health care, education and other services and help communities cope with the effects of climate change. © UNICEF/UN0325670/Ralaivita

Entitled A Future for the World’s Children?, the report is the first comprehensive independent look at child health through the lens of climate change and other existential threats. It includes data on 180 countries, a global index ranking each according to how well children and their environments are protected and flourishing. (Read the full report here. Explore its findings and interact with the data here.)

The data show that while the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, wealthier countries threaten the future of all children through excessive carbon emissions.

Children are the least responsible for the causes of climate change, yet they bear the brunt of its impact. Degraded environmental conditions put vulnerable children at greater and greater risk, making access to shelter, nutrition and education ever more challenging. Droughts, floods and other climate change-related conditions hit marginalized populations the hardest.

By 2040, it is estimated that one in four children worldwide will be living in areas with extremely limited access to safe water. Unless and until meaningful action is taken, climate change will continue to endanger children and threaten their futures. If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100, in line with current projections, this would lead to devastating health consequences for children due to rising ocean levels, heatwaves, proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue and malnutrition. 

Viruses thrive in warm temperatures. And so the right climate conditions can trigger — and amplify — diseases like Zika, dengue fever and malaria, while heavier rains and flooding help waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhea spread faster and farther. Above: a girl avoids floodwater in Maputo, Mozambique. © UNICEF/UN0139437/Prinsloo

For UNICEF and partners, tackling climate change is about protecting children's rights as enshrined by international charter: the right to be protected, healthy and educated; the right to be treated fairly, and the right to be heard. As the Commission's report lays out, investing in a child’s health, development and environment brings benefits throughout life, and across generations. 

“From the climate crisis to obesity and harmful commercial marketing, children around the world are having to contend with threats that were unimaginable just a few generations ago,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “It is time for a rethink on child health, one which places children at the top of every government’s development agenda and puts their well-being above all considerations.”

To protect children, the Commission calls on governments, civil society, communities and young people to join forces as part of a new global movement for children and take immediate action to:

  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible — the best way to promote healthy growth and development, and the only way to ensure children have a future on this planet;
  • place children and adolescents at the center of efforts to achieve sustainable development;
  • encourage and enable new policies and investment in all sectors — the only way to improve and safeguard child health and rights;
  • incorporate children’s voices into policy decisions; and
  • tighten national regulation of marketing that targets children and youth with harmful products (fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol, tobacco).

Building climate resilience is already a key focus of UNICEF's programs in health, sanitation, education and other areas. UNICEF works with partners around the world to identify and implement affordable, scalable solutions that will help curb the impact of climate change on the lives of children.

In 2011, UNICEF introduced U-Report, a digital platform for engaging young people and making sure their voices are heard on issues that affect their lives and futures. By 2019, U-Report had 6 million subscribers across 50 mostly low- and middle-income countries — and as it continues to expand its reach, U-Report could be used to monitor community progress toward the global goals, according to the Commission report. 

Learn more about what UNICEF and partners are doing to protect children from the impacts of climate change.

Join the global movement to secure a better future for the world's children. Call on the U.S. Government to take action to protect children from the impacts of climate change. No country is doing enough.

Support UNICEF's work to provide innovative solutions to the challenges facing children in a rapidly changing world. 
 

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Top photo: More and more children and adolescents are demanding action on climate change. © Photo courtesy of WHO