USAID and UNICEF join forces to call for more action to prevent maternal and child exposure to toxic lead

By United States Agency for International Development

USAID and UNICEF join forces to call for more action to prevent maternal and child exposure to toxic lead

At the 77th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, USAID and UNICEF co-hosted a high-level meeting to elevate the global health community’s attention to the negative impact of lead exposure on health and well-being, particularly on mothers and children.

Globally, an estimated one in three children – approximately 800 million – suffer from elevated blood lead levels that necessitate public health action.

The meeting builds on both organizations’ advocacy efforts around lead poisoning; USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently launched a global call to action to address the widely-neglected, yet highly-tractable issue. Lead is a prevalent and potent neurotoxin to which there is no safe level of human exposure. The negative impacts on children’s cognitive development result in lower productivity and earnings and are responsible for at least a $1 trillion drag on global GDP.

Assistant Administrator for Global Health Atul Gawande and UNICEF Deputy Executive Director of Humanitarian Action and Supply Operations Ted Chaiban led a dialogue on the dangers of lead alongside representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO), Lead Exposure Elimination Project, and the governments of Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. Health leaders highlighted that the most effective solution to mitigate the impact of lead is to prevent exposure by addressing known sources of lead, including paint and spices, and generate data and awareness of the impact of lead exposure.

They underscored the need for a unified government, multi-sectoral approach to address the challenge. The active engagement and concerted action of ministries of health, education, environment, industry, economic growth, and national regulatory bodies, as well as the engagement of private sector and civil society actors is also crucial to addressing lead exposure.

Lead is among the top ten hazardous chemicals that WHO considers to be of major public health concern, and children and women of reproductive age are particularly at risk for the negative consequences of lead exposure. During pregnancy, lifetime cumulative exposures to lead can be passed on to the fetus, causing increased pregnancy complications, and elevating risks to leading causes of neonatal mortality, such as reduced fetal growth, lower birth weight, and preterm births, as well as stillbirths.

In addition to the severe cognitive development impairments and poor educational outcomes resulting from lead poisoning, children with elevated blood lead levels are also at high risk of poor health outcomes throughout their lives. Lead poisoning is now recognized as a major causal risk factor for cardiovascular disease in adulthood, resulting in 1.6 million deaths annually.

USAID and UNICEF used the global platform to articulate the critical role that the health sector can and should play in preventing maternal and child exposure to lead and improving health outcomes of lead-exposed women and children. Both organizations proposed that ministries of health explore opportunities to elevate attention to the health impacts of lead exposure and galvanize local multi-sectoral action on preventable measures in global health.