WHO Challenges Cities to Work As "Engines of Change"

News release

Sarawak, Malaysia- Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, will lead a tribute to Asia's healthiest cities at the inaugural General Assembly of the Alliance for Healthy Cities in Kuching, Malaysia.

"Cities are at the heart of modern civilization. They have been traditionally known as 'engines of growth', but they can also be 'engines of change'", Dr Omi said in his speech to the General Assembly of the Alliance for Healthy Cities.

The Alliance, established recently to meet the growing needs of Healthy Cities in the Region, meets from 12 to 14 October, to further strengthen the Healthy Cities movement through greater networking and community empowerment.

The Healthy Cities approach, conceptualized by WHO in the mid-1980s, aims to improve the quality of life in urban areas. Dr Omi will present awards to cities with exceptional programmes in four areas: children and healthy environment; diet and physical activity; health promotion investment planning; and emergency/disaster preparedness. The Regional Director's award will also be given for cities with a long track record in Healthy Cities work.

Dr Omi noted that this year marks the start of an exciting partnership between WHO and a group of cities that can become 'engines of change' toward a healthier civilization. "Through the awards for Healthy Cities, WHO would like to encourage cities to take on this new role in the 21st century," Dr Omi said.

"Modern civilization has brought us many benefits but has also created serious drawbacks to health," said Dr Omi. "It is apparent that risks of new infectious diseases, such as SARS, social unrest and instability resulting in terrorist threats and violence, and the rapid rise in cases of suicide and other mental illnesses are more pronounced in cities. If the underlying causes of these new health threats are not addressed aggressively, the gains of civilization could be easily wiped out."

Dr Omi also urged leaders of Asia's cities to be mindful of the amount of food intake and the proportion of fast food in the diet that is now increasing among city dwellers. For instance, studies in China show that the risk for diabetes in some provincial capitals may be three times that of rural towns.

In addition, Dr Omi pointed out that "greater preparedness in managing emergencies is crucial as our Region is the most seriously affected by natural hazards. In 2003 alone, more than 111 million people were affected by 53 emergencies due to natural hazards."

"There is a lot that cities can learn from each other in promoting, protecting and preparing to address health risks of this century," Dr Omi said. "A movement, such as the Alliance for Healthy Cities, can have a far greater impact not only on their countries of origin, but on civilization as a whole."

More than 40 cities from Australia, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong (China), Japan, Macau (China), Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Republic of Korea and Viet Nam will be participating in the conference and assembly.


  • Asia now holds 61% of the global population and its share of the global urban population has risen from 9% in 1920 to 48% in 2000 and is expected to rise to 53% by 2030. (UN Habitat, State of the World's Cities 2004/5)
  • The growth of Asian cities is astounding with many doubling their population every 15-20 years. (UN Habitat, State of the World's Cities 2004/5)
  • The combined outcome of demographic growth, global economic reorganization and changes in state-social-capital relations in parts of Pacific-Asia is leading to hyper-urbanization never before seen in world history. (UN Habitat, State of the World's Cities 2004/5)
  • It is estimated that about half of the world's urban slum dwellers live in Asia and the Pacific. In 2001, 38% of the Region's 3.7 billion people were living in urban areas with 43% of its 1.2 billion urban residents living in slums. India and China alone accounted for 65 per cent of the overall Asian urban slum population. (UN Habitat, State of the World's Cities 2004/5)
  • The risks of unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles are increasing in cities. Studies in China show that the risk for diabetes in some provincial capitals may be three times that of rural towns. (National Diabetes Survey, China, 1996)
  • The sizes and portions of both fast food and traditional food are increasing in cities. In Vietnam, the energy density and portion size of traditional food, such as Pho Ga can be prepared as a 'special' Pho Ga, but contains 22.5% more kcal than the 'popular' Pho Ga. (Food Consumption Tables, Ho Chi Minh City Nutrition Centre)
  • Risks to the health of children in cities are also increasing. In Asia and the Pacific, an estimated 2.3 million deaths annually are attributable to environmental factors, such as indoor smoke from solid fuels, unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, and urban air pollution. Children living in urban slums and squatter settlements in developing countries suffer most. (WHO, WPRO)
  • Of the six WHO Regions, the Western Pacific is the most affected by natural hazards. In 2003, more than 53 emergencies due to natural hazards were reported in the Region. More than 1880 persons were reported killed, 8500 were injured, 820 000 lost their homes and over 111 million people were affected.
  • In the 46 reported emergencies due to technological hazards, 1593 persons were killed and 810 injured.

For further information, please contact Dr Hisashi Ogawa, Regional Adviser in Healthy Settings and Environment at (63 2) 9886; email: ogawah@wpro.who.int or Dr Susan Mercado, Regional Adviser in Health Promotion, at (63 2) 9854; email: mercados@wpro.who.int.