Air pollution is the topmost cause for the rising burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in India, says a recent health report by ASSOCHAM.
The report said 76 percent of the population with NCDs is exposed to high air pollution. It also suggests that nearly 29 per cent of the population is exposed to high levels of household pollution, while 20 per cent is exposed to air pollution at the workplace.
According to the report, after pollution, low physical activity and high stress levels are the most prevalent factors, while alcohol consumption, smoking and excessive intake of sugary drinks and red meat are the least prevalent factors leading to NCDs.
“The report makes an alarming observation that NCDs increase after 18 years and show a quantum leap when an individual crosses the age of 35. More than two-thirds of people suffering from these diseases are in the most productive life age group – between 26 and 50 years. Given that we are one of the youngest nations in the world, unflinching and concerted efforts for a ‘Swasth Bharat’ are imperative,” said Dr. Rajesh Kesari, Diabetologist & Physician, and Expert, ASSOCHAM Illness to Wellness.
The recent Covid onslaught and the higher mortality rate among patients with NCDs (comorbidities) have brought the focus back on preventive healthcare. “Despite challenging circumstances, several laudable steps have been taken by the Government of India to address this mounting concern. A population-based initiative for screening, prevention, and control of common NCDs has been rolled out under the National Health Mission and as part of Comprehensive Primary Healthcare.
The preventive aspect of NCDs is also strengthened through the Ayushman Bharat Health Wellness Centre scheme by promotion of wellness activities and targeted communication at the community level. However, there is still scope for a lot more work in this direction,” added Dr. Kesari.
The rising levels of pollution across the country especially pose a serious threat to expecting mothers. Dr. Varuna Pathak, former Professor of Gynecology & Obstetrics, Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal, said, “There are many factors that can determine the condition of an expecting mother before, during, and after the delivery, along with the state of her newborn. While most of these factors are in our control, there are a few things that are beyond our reach. One such factor, which poses a great risk to a woman and her expected child, is air pollution.”
He further said, “I have seen many cases in which a patient has done everything right by the book during her pregnancy but has suffered complications and given birth to a child with a health condition only because she was exposed to toxic air.”
Multiple studies have established a direct link between air pollution and premature birth. According to reports, more than three million babies are born prematurely every year due to air pollution. Babies born before completing the pregnancy term are at a high risk of developing neurological disorders and permanent disabilities. Further, long term exposure to unhealthy air during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight, which can cause multiple health complications for the newborn.
Research has shown that women exposed to high particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to a child suffering from autism. Also, children exposed to air pollution at an early stage can suffer from alterations in the immune system.
“Asthma is perhaps the most common health condition triggered by air pollution. Asthma during pregnancy can cause preeclampsia, a condition that leads to an increase in blood pressure while decreasing liver and kidney functions. This can result in the baby suffering from lack of oxygen, which can cause premature birth and poor growth of organs. It can also lead to the child developing asthma at a later stage,” added Dr Pathak.
The rising burden of NCDs globally has left health experts worried. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the annual deaths caused by NCDs will increase to 55 million by 2030, if timely preventive interventions are not made.
For India, a vast population combined with rapid urbanization and people’s changing lifestyle makes the problem even more complex.