Indian commuters make their way through heavy fog and air pollution in Amritsar on January 2, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian commuters make their way through heavy fog and air pollution in Amritsar © AFP

Sign up here to receive this briefing each Friday by email.

Court reprimands for the UK and Poland and residents of Bangkok “choking on hazardous air” were the latest manifestations of the global battle against air pollution — responsible for 6.5m premature deaths a year.

In the UK, where a court damned government plans as “seriously flawed”, nitrogen dioxide from diesel cars has been singled out, while in Poland the main culprit is outdated residential heating systems. Everyday consumer items can also contribute significantly. 

Research evidence of the toll on health is growing — but so is public awareness and campaigning, such as in the Lancet's Commission on Pollution and Health and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

The World Health Organization, in collaboration with the UN, is expanding Breathe Life, its air monitoring campaign for cities. With 70 per cent of the world's population expected to live in urban areas in 20 years’ time, action at local level is becoming as important as national legislation. As Dr Maria Neira, WHO public health director, told FT Health recently: “Mayors are our new ministers of health.”

But the biggest impetus for change will come from below, if residents recognise the link between air pollution and their families' health. “Nothing motivates a grandmother more than having an asthmatic child at home,” says Dr Neira.

Three questions

We spoke to James Chen, businessman, philanthropist and founder of Clearly, which is behind a book and a campaign to tackle eyecare.

Why are you so focused on the issue of vision?

It’s the world’s largest unaddressed disability. There are 2.5bn people in the world with poor and uncorrected vision — and it’s fixable. There is very little research, but poor vision impacts productivity, gender equality, education and health — including traffic accidents. With the global population ageing, and with younger people on screens getting eye strain, there will only be more problems in the future. By 2050, half the world will need distance glasses.

What have you already done?

We formed Vision for a Nation to work in Rwanda, which is now the first country in the developing world where everyone has access to vision correction. We funded a training programme for nurses and subsidised spectacles. The government eased the regulations on who could give eye tests and removed import duties on glasses. That can’t work everywhere, but there are adjustable glasses and an app to screen eyes. There is potential for drones for delivery and 3D-printing. Our Vision Prize rewards new technologies.

What are your priorities?

There is a demand problem. We need more attention to the issue, with more action by governments and policymakers. When I last looked at the World Bank website, the top five officials all wore glasses, but there is no sign of vision in the Sustainable Development Goals. We are planning an awareness campaign. We want it on the agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. It’s got to be a higher priority than now.


Child mortality Unicef said 2.6m children die each year when less than a month old, and a million on the day they are born. Preventable causes account for 80 per cent of the deaths, which could be tackled with affordable, quality healthcare, good nutrition and clean water. Worst affected are Pakistan, Central African Republic and Afghanistan. (Unicef, Guardian)

Transformational business

Know of an innovative health company? Entries are open till mid-March for the 2018 FT/IFC transformational business award. We are looking for companies addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals including health, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected states. Full details here.

News round-up

Oxfam fallout spreads Repercussions from the Oxfam scandal continued as fears for charitable giving increased and other NGOs came into the spotlight for alleged unacceptable behaviour. The UK said it would take the lead in tackling aid sector abuse. (FT, Guardian, Devex)

Fighting NCDs The WHO gave more details of its high-level commission on non-communicable diseases. Critics point to lack of funding and the way some countries treat NCDs purely as “lifestyle” diseases: obesity is a product of social inequality and needs a collective social response. (WHO, Devex, The Conversation)

Chinese lessons Sanming in eastern China has taken on pharma companies and local doctors by switching from premium drugs to generics and cracking down on kickbacks from distributors. Health spending has shot up as China's population ages. (FT)

HIV horror Infections have surged in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte dismayed health advocates by deriding condoms as “not satisfying” and like eating sweets without the plastic wrappers removed. (Al Jazeera)

Animal-to-human transplants New research gives hope for the idea of xenotransplantation — growing organs such as hearts and kidneys in animals, particularly pigs — to be harvested for human transplants. (FT)

Cracking the peanut allergy Aimmune Therapeutics' peanut allergy drug has succeeded in a late-stage clinical trial, meaning it could be the first approved to prevent the potentially fatal condition. Here's our big read on the science and the sufferers. (FT)

The NHS and ‘permanent winter’ FT data show the NHS struggling to cope with the rise in older and sicker patients. Authorities point to record public satisfaction, more people surviving cancer and "the world’s most ambitious effort to treat mental illness". An analysis of 50 years of reorganisations says only increased funding will help. (FT, Social Policy Association)

Mental wealth UK research showed a quarter of those admitted to hospital with mental illness were also struggling with financial problems. Citizens Advice, the consumer group, said eight out of 10 NHS mental health practitioners were also dealing with their patients' non-medical issues such as debt. (FT)

Sickle sell The first attempt in the US to use Crispr gene-editing technology in people could be with sickle cell disease, a serious problem among African-Americans. But the long history of mistreatment of black patients could make recruiting volunteers a tough task. (Stat)

Cinema as therapy Positive representations on screen may help against depression and anxiety. Black Panther, the new US superhero film, has been dubbed “the largest therapy session in cinematic form”. Black Americans are much more likely to suffer depression than whites. (ABC News) 

Best from the Journals

Health leadership Germany's role in global health could include greater links between security and development, a more prominent role for Africa in foreign policy and stronger European leadership in climate change. In the US, the CDC is facing leadership changes as well as budget cuts. (BMJ, Lancet)

Antibiotic shortfall The weak pipeline of new antibiotics is well known, but the unavailability of old antibiotics is also becoming a serious global problem. The supply system needs reform to ensure effective treatment for common and potentially severe bacterial infections. (The Lancet)

Tackling TB The first ever global estimate of young people with tuberculosis shows 1.8m people between 10 and 24 develop the disease each year, with those between 20 and 24 most at risk. (European Respiratory Journal)

Adapting to ageing By 2050, the number of people over 60 is expected to reach 22 per cent of the population. A class of drugs called geroprotectors might be able to delay the onset of concurrent age-related diseases (multimorbidity) and boost resilience. (Nature)

India's digital divide As Indian health systems adapt to increased mobile phone use among the more affluent, poorer rural populations are being left behind. (World Development)

Antidepressants work All 21 types of antidepressant tested in a comprehensive study were found to be effective. The Royal College of Psychiatrists said: “This finally puts to bed the controversy on antidepressants, clearly showing that these drugs do work in lifting mood and helping most people with depression.” (The Lancet)

Drinking and dementia Heavy alcohol use is linked to the risk of early-onset dementia. Screening for heavy drinking should become part of regular medical care and more should be done to reduce consumption. (The Lancet)

Podcast of the week

Global obesity Dr  Johanna Ralston, head of the World Obesity Federation, discusses a looming public health catastrophe. (World Radio Switzerland, 27m)

Join the debate

FT Health is free to read — please forward and encourage others to sign up at

Contact us via Twitter, Facebook or email
Previous edition: Lessons from the Oxfam scandal
Latest news at and Twitter @FT_Health

Final thought

Hospital dramas are a mainstay of TV viewing around the world, but are they giving viewers false impressions and contributing to dissatisfaction levels? (Trauma Surgery & Acute Care Open)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article