At the first urban health conference in South Africa this year, Helen Budliger, the ambassador of Switzerland to South Africa, said: “Health is everything. You can be wealthy, attractive or successful but what is that worth without your health?”
While many people flood to urban areas in search of new opportunities and a better quality life, the last thing people often consider is their health.
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Dr Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, says that the global health challenge in African cities is unprecedented and calls for innovation in the way that health is positioned in the public policy.
Therefore, the Urban Health in Africa conference, hosted by the Novartis foundation aimed to bring together policymakers, academia, city planners, and public and private health partners to tackle the emerging challenges of urban health in Africa.
What is urban health?
Urban health refers to the wellbeing and health of people who live in the cities. Dr John Seager, founding member and former director of the World Health Organisation’s collaborating Centre for Urban Health, says that the definition of urban health can be broad.
“At the WHO we decided that urban areas in South Africa included all peripheral areas of a city including and that health not only referred to diseases, but the holistic wellbeing of people,” Dr Seager explains.
8 challenges of urban exposure
Associate Professor Tolu Oni, a specialist from the School of Public Health and Family medicine at the University of Cape Town, was one of the speakers at Urban Health in Africa conference. Prof Oni’s research focuses on the interaction between common chronic conditions and the unplanned urban environment. She names the following challenges the 8 S's of urban exposure:
1. Sugar and salt
The fast paced life in urban areas often makes people eat food that is high in energy but low in nutrition. Unhealthy eating habits (often involving excess sugar and salt) associated with living in the city can lead to chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity.
"Smoking" does not only refer to the habit of smoking, but also to the amount of air pollution that is significantly more potent in urban areas. According to Dr Carlos Dora, the coordinator of public health and the environment at the WHO, lung damage from air pollution can be just as damaging in the long term as smoking tobacco.
3. Sleep and stress
A city that never sleeps is all good and well until it affects your sleep patterns. Sleep deprivation can not only translate to physical symptoms such as fatigue, but can be detrimental to your mental well-being.
4. Sports and recreation (linked to transport)
Limited access to sport and recreational centres in the city is a huge concern as it has a massive effect on urban dwellers' activity levels. Prof Oni also links this problem to public transport in the city, which can limit the amount of exercise people get in the city.
5. Sanitation and water
In 1894 Dr John Snow mapped the streets in London where people were infected by a cholera outbreak, and subsequently officials were able to find the area where the water was contaminated.
Not only did Dr Snow link contaminated water to cholera, but he also shed light on the importance of sanitation and clean water in the city. Similarly, city planners and health officials should work together to make sure that people who live in the city have access to clean water and proper sanitation.
6. Safe housing and social cohesion
Housing is a basic right, but unfortunately, because of dense population in cities, not everyone’s right to housing is accommodated. Living in overpopulated areas can encourage the spread of infectious diseases such as TB.
Unprotected sex in urban areas has become a massive concern, especially in South Africa where HIV/Aids is still spreading rapidly.
8. Substance abuse and alcohol
Substance abuse in urban areas doesn't only have serious health implications for addicts, but can also lead to other social economic problems like domestic violence.