Twice as many years lost due to ill health or premature death in low- and middle-income countries in Europe

Copenhagen, Çeşme Izmir, 12 September 2013

Despite significant progress in life expectancy in recent decades (an overall increase of 5 years over the past 30 years to 76 years on average), WHO data on disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) show a more complex picture of health, with inequalities across the 53 countries in the WHO European Region. According to the 2012 European health report, on average, low- and middle-income countries lose twice as many years to ill health or premature death as high-income countries in the Region.

“Why should people in one part of Europe suffer ill health for so much longer, or have their lives cut short earlier than others elsewhere? Inequities are unnecessary and unfair, and their negative influence on health reaches far beyond those immediately affected. Health 2020, with equity at its heart, is guiding national policy-making for health across Europe today. Tackling the root causes of ill health and promoting well-being, giving people the opportunity to make healthy choices, ensuring equal access to health services for every citizen: these are the hallmarks of a healthy, just society, one that will not only weather economic upheavals but also develop and thrive,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

All countries in the Region committed themselves to combating health inequalities when they endorsed Health 2020, the European policy framework for health and well-being, in 2012. A year later, at the annual meeting of WHO European Member States, to be held on 16–19 September 2013 in Çeşme Izmir, Turkey, members of a high-level ministerial panel will share their experience with implementing Health 2020 in their countries, their plans for the future and the steps they are taking to reduce these inequalities. Countries will then decide on how to measure their progress.

Inequalities are at the core of every challenge to health in Europe today. Declining social mobility and social cohesion, as well as increasing inequities in living conditions, are seen everywhere, even in more affluent countries. The common risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and cancer – smoking, poor nutrition, inactivity – are linked to social circumstances. A country’s investments in its health system and social welfare determine its resilience in riding out economic crises. The understanding of and methods of dealing with mental ill health are bound up with the understanding of health and well-being, and of the circumstances in which people thrive most. Cross-border health threats – from mosquito-borne diseases to the rise in microbes resistant to antibiotics – show that each country is only as strong as its weakest neighbour. Preventing child maltreatment is not only a moral duty but also prevents life-long health effects and stops the generational cycle of abuse. Making sure that all children are vaccinated against measles and rubella means that both they and those around them are protected from life-threatening diseases.

All these challenges are especially important at a time of economic crisis, which brings to the fore the importance of Health 2020. The WHO Regional Committee for Europe is a unique platform for the 53 Member States in Europe, led by their ministers and senior officials, to discuss and take action on these issues.

The meeting in Çeşme Izmir will be webcast and covered live on Twitter. In addition, WHO/Europe will post daily updates on the session on its web site.

Note. The DALY is a time-based measure used to quantify the burden of disease in a population. It combines an estimate of years of life lost due to premature mortality and years of life lived with disability or chronic disease, so is a measure of the years lost from what would be perfect or ideal health. The DALY therefore gives a fuller picture of factors affecting health than data on mortality and life expectancy alone.

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Highlights of the Regional Committee agenda addressing inequalities