Urbanization Brings Together People — and Disease

By Calum Macpherson, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Director of Research at St. George's University
April 19, 2017

If you’ve ever taken a trip to a major city like New York, Mexico City, or Beijing, then you’ve seen what urbanization looks like firsthand. You’ve squeezed while walking down crowded sidewalks, packed into a tight elevator or subway car, and watched cars and buses cram into narrow streets. You might have thought to yourself: is it just me, or does this seem like very little space for a whole lot of people?

Don’t worry, it’s not just you — people are flocking to towns and cities at unprecedented rates.[1] About 3.4 billion people, or over 50 percent of the world’s population, currently inhabit urban areas across the world.[2] [3] That number is only expected to rise — the World Health Organization estimates that 70 percent of all people will live in towns and cities by 2050.[4]

This trend toward urbanization offers a wide range of health-related opportunities for people across the globe. For instance, people living in urban areas tend to have better access to health care, which has contributed to a drop in death rates in those spaces.[5]

But urbanization also creates serious health challenges. People living in cities and towns are at greater risk for a variety of health problems, including diseases contracted from polluted water and air and injuries due to motor vehicles.[6] Having so many individuals living in close proximity also increases the risk of epidemics, as diseases are able to spread more quickly.[7]

Lawmakers play a crucial role in maintaining the health of individuals in these urban spaces. The challenges that urbanization presents can be minimized through urban planning strategies and regulations that emphasize public health and safety.

Take motor vehicle accidents. According to the WHO, traffic accidents are the ninth leading cause of death globally.[8] While car accidents are an unavoidable consequence of motor transportation, there are ways of reducing the frequency of such events. A study from the World Resources Institute, for instance, shows that designing cities and streets to serve pedestrians and public transport users — as opposed to vehicle traffic — can significantly improve public safety for drivers and pedestrians alike.[9]

My own research on zoonotic diseases also highlights the importance of public programs in promoting urban health. In a paper published in the International Journal of Parasitology, I explored the impact of Toxocara canis, a zoonotic parasitic infection that humans share with animals like dogs, cats, and foxes.[10] Cities could make great strides towards combatting this disease by implementing Animal Birth Control (ABC) programs, which involve catching, neutering, and releasing free roaming dogs.[11]

Our increasingly urbanized world will require targeted public-sector programs that help more people enjoy the benefits of living in cities — without putting their health at risk.

[1] http://www.unfpa.org/urbanization

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4481042/

[3] http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/4/10-010410/en/

[4] http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/4/10-010410/en/

[5] http://www.prb.org/Publications/Lesson-Plans/HumanPopulation/Urbanization.aspx

[6] http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/4/10-010410/en/

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12971682

[8] http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/4/10-010410/en/

[9] http://www.wrirosscities.org/sites/default/files/CitiesSaferByDesign_final.pdf, page 3

[10] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255974790_The_epidemiology_and_public_health_importance_of_toxocariasis_A_zoonosis_of_global_importance

[11] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255974790_The_epidemiology_and_public_health_importance_of_toxocariasis_A_zoonosis_of_global_importance (see 8.3)

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