By William H. Frist and Jonathan T.M. Reckford?
8:11 p.m. Monday, April 12, 2010
As in Haiti and Chile, disasters mobilize us to help families rebuild, rebound and recover.
Yet, in our rush to react, we can overlook the underlying tragedy: those most vulnerable to disaster often live in peril before the earth shakes or the sea rumbles. We must respond to the needs of disaster survivors, but we must also address the constant crisis families face daily in deplorable living conditions.
For example, nearly 9 million children die each year from preventable causes. That’s about 24,500 every day.
By the time you read this article, 50 more will have died, not because of medical barriers, but because of financial ones. Cheap medical interventions can prevent many of these deaths, but medicine isn’t the only necessary measure.
With access to clean water, proper sanitation and other basic services, decent housing fosters good health.
More should be done through public, private and nonprofit partnerships to provide proper housing.
Take those preventable causes above and consider how many of them might have been avoided had families lived in decent homes.
Pneumonia, for example, kills more children each year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined — nearly four children each minute.
Many of those deaths take place in homes with crowded living conditions where bacteria thrive.
Because too many poor families cannot afford adequate shelter, they cram too many people into too small a space — subjecting the entire household to increased risk.
Diarrhea is another leading cause of child deaths. Once a child contracts diarrhea, we can easily treat it with oral rehydration.
But consider again how that same child might have avoided the condition with access to clean water. More than 1.2 billion people lack that access.
Studies have linked health outcomes to housing and housing-related basics such as water and sanitation. In Mexico, the World Bank found that replacing dirt floors with concrete floors improved the health of children, including a 78 percent reduction in parasitic infections and a 49 percent reduction in diarrhea.
In Malawi, researchers from Emory University concluded that young children living in Habitat for Humanity homes were 44 percent less likely to contract respiratory problems, gastrointestinal diseases or malaria than their counterparts living in substandard housing.
Behind those statistics are the hopes, lives and dreams of children who are significantly less likely to fall ill when they have adequate shelter.
Health threats from inadequate housing are not limited to developing countries. In the United States, 6 million families face disproportionate health risks because of their housing. Cockroaches and mold exacerbate asthma in children and adults.
The list goes on, and even though it’s poor and low-income families who suffer most, all of us have a stake in the good health — and by extension, the good housing — of everyone.
Creating decent, affordable housing is not only the right thing to do, it’s smart and economical — saving health care dollars at home and promoting economic development internationally.
When families are well, they don’t incur costly hospital visits, and when they can afford their housing, they can better maintain a healthy life.
Health initiatives in the U.S. and beyond must address the positive impact adequate housing has on good health.
As Congress assesses U.S. foreign assistance, policy-makers should recognize the importance of shelter as a standalone issue, as well as a means to support other development outcomes, such as improved health.
We as individuals must speak up in the conversation around decent shelter.
We can advocate for sound housing policy, roll up our sleeves to build affordable housing or financially invest in housing solutions that bring health, hope and healing to families around the globe.
Dr. William H. Frist is a physician and former U.S. Senate majority leader.
Jonathan T.M. Reckford is CEO at Habitat for Humanity International.