New health data shows life expectancy up, officials warn of coronavirus regression

New health data shows life expectancy up, officials warn of coronavirus regression
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Global life expectancy has risen substantially in recent years, driven by better access to health care and treatments for diseases like HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday.

But top health officials warned health care improvements have come too slowly, and that billions of people around the world still lack access to safe drinking water, medical treatment and even basic sanitation that can boost health and prevent disease.

Those officials also warned that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to slow or even reverse gains made in recent years.

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"The pandemic highlights the urgent need for all countries to invest in strong health systems and primary health care, as the best defense against outbreaks like COVID-19, and against the many other health threats that people around the world face every day. Health systems and health security are two sides of the same coin," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, said in a statement.

The WHO's annual World Health Statistics report shows the average life expectancy across the world stands at 72 years, up 5.5 years since 2000. That average varies widely between high-income and low-income countries, but the largest increases in life expectancy have come in low-income nations, where the life expectancy has risen by 11 years, or 21 percent, since the turn of the century.

The vast majority of nations where residents can expect to live the longest are developed countries in Asia and Europe. People in Japan, Switzerland, Spain, Singapore, France, Australia, Canada, Italy, South Korea and Norway live an average of at least 82.5 years, the WHO data show.  

The United States ranks 34th on the list, with a life expectancy of 78.5 years as of 2016. That number has actually come down in recent years as the nation fights an opioid epidemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Though low-income nations have made progress in the last 16 years, the poorest African nations have the lowest life expectancies in the world. Lesotho, a tiny kingdom completely surrounded by South Africa that has been ravaged by AIDS, has a life expectancy of just 52.9 years. Residents in nations like the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Chad and Cote d'Ivoire all have average lifespans below 55 years.

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The WHO also pointed to significant improvements in infant mortality rates, which have been cut almost in half since the beginning of the century. African and Southeast Asian nations, in particular, saw a steep drop in both the mortality rates of children under 5 years old and in maternal mortality rates. 

Still, the under-5 mortality rate is eight times higher in African countries than in European nations, the report found.

Maternal mortality rates are down 38 percent since 2000, though the vast majority of those deaths are still occurring in African and South Asian nations where women are far less likely to have access to hospitals or even basic medical facilities.

Underscoring the lack of adequate health systems in the poorest countries, there are about 985 people to every nurse or midwife in African nations. In European and American nations, that ratio is closer to 120 people to every nurse or midwife.

The world has seen a substantial decline in the number of people infected with the deadliest diseases in recent years, including pathogens like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. African nations have made the most progress, though they still suffer far more cases of all three diseases than in other regions.

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Worryingly, WHO officials pointed to increases in the number of HIV cases in Europe and eastern Mediterranean countries, where rates of HIV infection are now higher than they were in 2000.

But vaccination rates are on the rise too. About 86 percent of the world's population has received a diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, a 14 percentage point increase since 2000, while measles vaccinations have jumped from 18 percent of the global population to 69 percent. 

The WHO also said it was concerned about increasing obesity rates across the globe, and rising consumption of alcohol. The percentage of adults who use tobacco products has steadily declined, though its rate of decrease has slowed in recent years.