By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
What are the implications for health from the ongoing urbanization of the world’s populations? Do you know of any consequences to good health?
Urbanization, or the movement of populations to urban settings, started as a population drift that has fast become a stampede. The causes are many, and the consequences are not all yet realized. Motivating some of the movement is the mechanization of agriculture; the reduction of job availability in rural areas; and industrialization around urban centers, which creates jobs.
Unfortunately, the necessary infrastructure essential to balanced growth is often missing, resulting in the sprouting of shantytown conditions in the cities of many developing countries, and the overpopulation and resultant stress on aging infrastructure in developed cities.
The health consequences vary geographically but are very distinct. The current epidemic of obesity, predominantly in—although not limited to—developed countries, typically involves the less affluent. The inner cities often have very few stores selling fresh produce, while fast-food outlets, which encourage obesity, proliferate and predominate. Social interaction may typically be reduced among city dwellers with an increase in loneliness and isolation—paradoxically within their huge population. Mental health is less robust, with an increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide among the youth. North America’s societies are experiencing a marked increase in mental disability.
In less-developed communities a rise in infectious disease may be expected, as the public health measures of appropriate sanitation and hygiene fail to be maintained or are never developed. Inadequate sanitation, a lack of clean water, and crowded living conditions are causative factors in outbreaks, such as the recent one in Haiti in which thousands suffered from cholera.
Densely populated large-city “ghettos” breed a climate favorable to drug dealing, prostitution, and sexually transmitted disease. Crime and social unrest then scar these neighborhoods.
Urbanization with its associated pollution is also cause for concern. China, the most populated nation on earth, has seen massive industrial development, huge population shifts, and associated environmental pollution.
It has been known for a long time that city dwellers have more respira-tory disease, including lung cancer.
Recent findings in France have confirmed declining sperm counts in the mainly urban male population. Direct cause and effect of specific potential pollutants are difficult to determine, but something is definitely going wrong.
Birth defects have recently been tied to traffic pollution. In an analysis of data recovered from two large California studies,* it was shown that mothers-to-be living in areas of the highest traffic pollution (the top 25 percent), with elevated carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxide concentrations, had almost double the risk of delivering a child with a neurological birth defect such as spina bifida. While such data will require confirmation, it gives much food for thought.
The increase in computer technology and ready access to the Internet mean that many can work from home. While there are benefits from office socialization, this does not have to be continuous, and the advantages of a country setting are enormous. Our early church pioneers recognized these benefits, and while there is a huge need for us to address the work for the big cities, it would be conducive to health if we would seek to live in the more rural periphery from which we could extend our care.
* American Journal of Epidemiology, Nov. 1, 2012.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist,
is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist,
is an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.