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The latest news on issues of Public Health

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Last week we got to witness a significant breakthrough, both scientific and humanitarian. The World Health Organization approved a Malaria vaccine for the very first time. As this New York Times article points out, "malaria kills about half a million people each year, nearly all of them in sub-Saharan Africa—including 260,000 children under 5". So even if we're still far from eradicating one of the deadliest infectious diseases in the world, this new development is a step forward and a cause for hope, especially in Africa.

Along with this incredible medical breakthrough, many other Public Health news caught our attention, including COVID-19 vaccination issues, new information on how climate change affects public health, and the celebration of World Mental Health Day by raising awareness on the urgency of prioritizing it.

Given the current vaccine inequity crisis, the WHO launched a strategy to address inequality in access to vaccination against COVID-19. In high-income countries, most people enjoy protection against the coronavirus, but in low-income countries, mainly in the African continent, people are still very much at risk. And even though the supply of vaccines to countries in the global south is increasing, improvement has been too slow to avoid hundreds of preventable deaths. Moreover, in this piece by The Guardian the head of the Oxford vaccine group calls on wealthier nations to stop prioritizing booster shots instead of sharing doses with the global south. Otherwise, "hundreds of thousands of people worldwide" will die this season. 

But despite the failure of high-income nations in responding equitably to COVID-19 and its tragic outcomes, the African continent seems invested in changing this narrative of inequality that has been perpetuated for far too long. Dr. John Nkengasong, the first head of Africa's new Centers for Disease Control, is trying to turn things around by encouraging cooperation between the continent's governments to predict and fight public health threats while ending dependency on the WHO and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Learn more about this initiative through this article in The New York Times

It's inspiring to see how working towards a united front can make such a difference. And it's discouraging to watch this moral failure by the global north gain even grimmer nuances. Just look at the numbers of vaccine hesitancy among so many high-income nations and how many governments have failed to enhance trust in vaccination. The Conversation has a thorough piece on the determinants of trust that closes with recommendations for governments on how they can improve that trust.

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Why ensuring trust is important in reducing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

Trust is needed to curb vaccine hesitancy. Governments need to explain vaccines and other public health measures, while also speaking to the broader purpose of caring for the community we belong to.

And also on vaccine mistrust, this article by CNN illustrates how the issue is a cause for concern in the EU. The ECDC has urged countries struggling with hesitancy to work on understanding why their population remains mistrustful and then address those concerns.

Although the looming threat of COVID-19 continues to take up most headlines in the health sections of news media, climate change-related health issues follow right behind it as the new and much more grave threat to our public health. Because even though there is, to this date, no direct link between climate change and COVID-191, research has shown that changing weather patterns facilitate zoonotic spillovers such as the one that originated this coronavirus2

Awareness about the public health risks associated with climate change is definitely rising as the effects of this crisis have become impossible to ignore. Climate change affects almost all determinants of health: clean air, clean and sufficient water, sufficient and nutritious food, and secure shelter. And knowledge of this looming threat associated with the lack of adequate climate-mitigating policies from governments is also taking a significant toll on the mental health of younger generations. Moreover, along with the young, those living in low and middle-income countries will be the most gravely and first affected by the consequences of changing weather patterns on health.

Here are two essential news pieces on this subject: Reuters on WHO's new air quality guidelines that hope to curb the estimated 7 million premature deaths a year and its root cause, air pollution from fossil fuels, and a piece by The Guardian addressing eco-anxiety, a condition not yet diagnosable but on the rise.

We need to act now to address this issue. Azimuth World Foundation has signed a petition together with many civil society organizations, social movements, local communities and Indigenous Peoples to call on the United Nations to immediately recognize the human right to a safe, clean and healthy environment.

Read more about this petition, sign it and please share it with your family, friends and community.

1WHO, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Climate change, 22 April 2020 https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-climate-change
2Rodó, X., San-José, A., Kirchgatter, K. et al. Changing climate and the COVID-19 pandemic: more than just heads or tails. Nat Med 27, 576–579 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-021-01303-y

The connections between mental health and climate change were a part of the conversation during last week's Mental Health Day 2021. The theme for this year's initiative was "Mental Health in an Unequal World", bringing into focus the lack of mental health services available to vulnerable communities and how the effects of growing inequality lead to specific and broadening mental health issues. Over the last few years, many reports have highlighted how some of the poorest, least-polluting countries in the world are likely to suffer first-hand the impacts of climate change. Communities that were already struggling with a lack of access to safe water or food insecurity, for example, will be left in an even more fragile position. If the availability of mental health services in these disadvantaged communities is already a cause for concern, what will happen when climate emergencies bring further hardship and desolation? This new piece by Mbalenhle Baduza for Spotlight explores a recent report by South Africa's Centre for Environmental Rights on the consequences of the Climate Emergency to Mental Health. We're now at a stage where expressions such as "climate trauma," "climate anxiety," and "ecological grief" have become part of our lexicon.

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Opinion: Climate emergency risks becoming a mental health emergency • Spotlight

Studies have shown that the rate of mental health problems, such as suicidality, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress increase after natural disasters. Mbalenhle Baduza unpacks the findings of a recent report by the Centre for Environmental Rights on the psychological and mental health consequences of climate change in South Africa.

Also exploring the topic of inequality in access to mental health services, The Lancet just published an online piece defending that a fight for equity in this area doesn't mean focusing equally on all communities. Some populations—vulnerable, disadvantaged, marginalized—need to be brought into focus. The intensity of care provided needs to be more significant, which involves looking at social and economic conditions as risk factors. We need to tackle how refugee and low-income populations face greater risks of developing mental illness, especially after the inequalities experienced in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And within these low-income settings, children's mental health must be a priority, defends UNICEF in a recent report. Compromising a child's mental health has enormous long-term costs for her, the family and the community. Awareness is an essential step in solving this issue, but it can only be tackled full-on with the participation of all levels of society, from schools to governments. The most vulnerable children must become the main focus in the conversation about mental health.

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