WHO: Urgent steps must be taken to make Metro Manila healthier

News release

MANILA, 7 April 2010 —The World Health Organization (WHO) said today that continued population growth in Metro Manila will have damaging consequences for human health, particularly for the poor, unless urgent steps are taken to tackle health risks for people who live in cities.

"Metro Manila has grown fast and randomly," said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. "Many people already live in urban slums or near-slums where disease is a serious threat. With the projected and continuous rise in the mega-city's population, the health risks will also rise if insufficient attention is paid to planning and implementation of healthy urban practices and infrastructure."

Rapid and unplanned urbanization increases human vulnerability to poverty, disease and natural disasters. Among the six WHO regions, the Western Pacific Region experiences the most natural hazards and disasters. Metro Manila had its fair share in 2009, and Typhoon Ondoy showed with devastating effect what can happen when urban planning is not a priority.

"People living in informal settlements suffered disproportionately from the flooding caused by Ondoy, which was compounded by inadequate sanitation systems in some areas of Metro Manila," said Dr Shin.

After the onset of Ondoy, there was an increase of cases of acute watery diarrhoea within Metro Manila and an outbreak of leptospirosis in three villages in Marikina City, which saw a 300% increase in the number of cases compared to the same weeks of the previous year. Of the 3600 post-typhoon leptospirosis cases from the Philippines admitted to hospital, 2299 were from Metro Manila, which also accounted for 178 of the 268 related deaths. Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease caused by contact with water contaminated with urine from rats and other mammals.

It is estimated that over 20% of Metro Manila's population is either under or near the poverty line, with 35% living in urban slums. Metro Manila is the smallest and most densely populated region in the Philippines and the only one that is entirely urban, with over 15 500 people per square kilometre. And although the most recent figures from the United Nations peg Metro Manila as the 15th largest city in the world, with a census population of more than 11.5 million people, some estimate the real number of people living in the city at over 16 million, ranking it as the world's 11th most populous city.

The Western Pacific Region has the highest number of people living in cities compared to other WHO regions. Almost 50% of people in the Region—some 800 million people—currently live in urban areas, and the number is expected to rise in the coming years. This shift from rural to urban living has had a profound impact on society and health. For a large and growing number of people and communities, urban living means poverty and isolation, which in turn lead to new health risks and challenges and widen the gap of health inequities.

Addressing these challenges and narrowing the health inequity gap caused by the rapid increase in urban living are among the most important global health issues of the 21st century. By the year 2030, six out of every 10 people globally will live in cities, and this proportion will grow to seven out of 10 by 2050.

Innovative and effective solutions that mitigate health risks of people living in cities must be found, acted upon and sustained over time. But the health sector cannot act alone, as many of the factors at play are controlled by other sectors. This is why it is time for all sectors to work together with civil society, community groups, architects, engineers and businesses to ensure that growing cities are healthy cities and to deal with the problems afflicting many of the urban poor.

Planning will work only where there is good urban governance and where communities—and especially the urban poor—are brought into the decision-making processes that affect their lives. As part of the "1000 Cities, 1000 Lives" campaign for World Health Day 2010, events are taking place around the globe to showcase what cities and citizens can do to make a positive and lasting difference for health.

"It's time for everyone to do their part. Metro Manila has all the ingredients for positive change," said Dr Shin. "Today, many municipalities within and outside Metro Manila participated in World Health Day celebrations and organized events. We urge them— and all of you—to support and sustain these efforts for the future. World Health Day may be held one day a year, but the health of the people is an every day matter."

For more information, please contact Dr John Go, Technical Officer,
Tel: +63 2 528 9063; Mobile: 0908 868 6379; E-mail: goj@wpro.who.int