By Krisa Choi, Nadeen Elkordy, Paighton Gimotty, Rachel Jones, and Samantha Klos
[Image courtesy of UNICEF]
What is World Health Day?
Health, as both a right and a principle, extends far beyond the absence of sickness. It is the well-being of individuals and populations, and without dispute, a fundamental element for the prosperity of any community. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of infirmity or disease.” As a fundamental indicator of the well-being of a community, it follows that the health of children in society is both reflective and predictive of the future of an individual community.
Social determinants of health play a huge role here; factors including healthcare access and quality, neighborhood and physical environments, social and community context, economic stability, and quality education access all contribute to global health. As an outreach initiative, the WHO established World Health Day in 1950 as a tool and platform to highlight a priority area of concern in one of these areas. Recurring annually on April 7th, the WHO maintains its goal of increasing awareness around global health issues. This years’ theme is “Universal Health Coverage: Everyone, Everywhere.”
What is UNICEF Doing?
The extent of an individual’s health is not dictated by their age, country of origin, or socioeconomic status– it does not discriminate. The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is an agency of the United Nations responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide. UNICEF works in over 190 countries and territories to help disadvantaged children through children's health and nutrition, safe water and sanitation, quality education and skill building, HIV prevention, and protection from violence and exploitation. All of these factors directly impact the holistic health and well-being of a child. UNICEF works to bring children out of cycles of poor healthcare, housing, education, and opportunity, helping these children fulfill their potential.
The UNICEF student chapter at the University of Michigan is currently working to help better children’s health at a local level. Throughout the 2022-2023 school year, UNICEF-UM has been working to end Child Marriage in the state of Michigan. In the United States, child marriage is not illegal, and it puts children’s physical and mental health at risk. It may drive them away from their education and future careers, and puts young girls at higher risk for teen pregnancies, sexual assault, and abuse. Additionally, UNICEF-UM has advocated for the passing of the Mental Health in International Development and Humanitarian Settings (MINDS) Act, recognizing that the mental health of children worldwide is critical to achieving global health goals.
Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Programming
UNICEF believes that growing up in a clean and safe environment is every child’s right. However, due to poor sanitation, over 700 children under the age of five die every day due to diarrheal diseases. This is only one example of a communicable disease– others include malaria and pneumonia. These diseases are preventable by increasing access to clean water and safe sanitation practices. Unfortunately, many communities lack the infrastructure to achieve this. UNICEF reports that 2.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, half of the global population lacks access to safe sanitation, 3 billion people do not have access to handwashing facilities, and 673 million people practice open defecation.
UNICEF works to implement water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs in over 100 countries. It works directly with schools and healthcare facilities to improve access to basic water, sanitation, and handwashing facilities and establishes protocols for preventing and controlling infectious diseases among children. Even in emergency and conflict settings, UNICEF prioritizes these rights– for example, they transport water, ensure that it is purified, and construct toilets in refugee camps and transit centers.
WASH programming in healthcare facilities is crucial to reduce the risk and spread of infections and diseases between communities and children. This presence of WASH facilities has increased the number of visits healthcare facilities receive, indicating that members of the community feel safer getting the care they need. Still, however, UNICEF reports that 1 in 4 healthcare facilities do not have basic water services. Around 1 in 5 lack sanitation and 1 in 6 have no hand hygiene facilities. UNICEF works to make these numbers zero.
The Importance of Mental Health
The role of mental health in achieving global development goals has gained recognition in recent years and has even entered into the Sustainable Development Goals. Particularly, the mental health of children across the world, especially those in conflict, is increasingly at-risk. Many of these children continue to encounter discrimination, stigma, and severe human rights violations due to mental health disorders. Although several mental health conditions can be treated effectively at a relatively low cost, less than 1% of global funding is allocated towards it, meaning effective treatment coverage remains exceptionally low in conflict-affected areas.
The mental health of children has suffered particularly in the wake of ongoing global conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many children have faced school closures and interruptions to the services they rely on to survive and flourish. UNICEF recognizes that anxiety, depression, and other stress-related conditions jeopardize the health and happiness of children. Neglecting mental health and psychosocial issues can impede children's development and prevent them from participating fully in society.
To combat this, the Mental Health in International Development and Humanitarian Settings (MINDS) Act was introduced in the 117th Congress and has been reintroduced in the 118th. It aims to promote the integration of mental health services into U.S. foreign assistance programming, with a specific emphasis on vulnerable populations, children, and their families. At UNICEF-UM, we urge you to join in continued advocacy for this first-of-its-kind legislation.
Ensuring Children’s Health is a Continued Effort
Today and every day, we advocate for children’s right to health. As the world’s most vulnerable population, children and their health are most at-risk in the outbreak of disease, war, natural disaster, and other crises. World Health Day is not only a recognition of progress made, from WASH programming to introducing mental health legislation, but a reminder of the work we still have left. To get more involved, join UNICEF-UM or donate directly to UNICEF USA.