04/06/2018 13:09 SAST | Updated 04/06/2018 13:09 SAST

Zoleka Mandela: The Biggest Killer Of Kids Is Not Disease Or Famine... It's Road Traffic

'The equivalent of at least two large schools is emptied of children each and every day.'

Zoleka Mandela
Zoleka Mandela at the Every Journey. Every Child. International Conference at City Hall, London in October 2017.

The neglected global health crisis must have action now

Last week health ministers from around the world met to discuss the policies and plans that will help billions lead safer, healthier lives. Yet one issue, which kills 350,000 children and adolescents every single year, will remain neglected.

Road traffic is one of the greatest threats to our children and the cause of a major global health crisis. More than a quarter-of-a-million children and adolescents die on the world's roads every year. In fact, the biggest killer of adolescents is not disease, famine or war, it is road traffic injury.

As a report issued at the World Health Assembly's gathering of health ministers highlights, vehicles don't just kill and injure children on the streets, they are poisoned by toxic emissions and prevented from leading active lifestyles.

We live in a world where child mortality has been halved, and we must be thankful for global intervention. Beyond the focus on under-fives' health, however, as children survive and grow into adolescence, they face unchecked dangers.

I know exactly what it is like to suffer from this man-made epidemic; I lost my own daughter in a road crash. And for every family like mine, grieving a loss, there is another whose child will face a life-changing disability, and several more families tending to a child with serious injuries. The equivalent of at least two large schools is emptied of children each and every day.

Toxic air, to which road traffic emissions contribute significantly, is a major issue. WHO estimates that outdoor air pollution killed more than 127,000 children under five in 2012. A total of 300-million children live in areas which dangerously exceed WHO air-quality limits by more than six times.

Clean air, safe streets and active childhoods are not separate issues for child health and have to be tackled together if any of them are going to be solved.

Parents are not unaware of these risks, and the fear of road crashes means many restrict their children's outdoor activity to protect them. We know, though, that physical activity is crucial to child health. In 2010, 81 percent of adolescents were insufficiently physically active and obesity has increased tenfold since the 1970s, bringing with it a host of health issues.

The burden of fatalities and poor health caused by road traffic is not, however, borne equally. The majority, some 90 percent, of road traffic fatalities occur in low-and-middle-income countries. And in cities around the world from New York to Nairobi, poorer children are far more likely than their wealthier counterparts to be victims of road crashes, live close to busy roads and be exposed to dirty air.

These deaths and illnesses have not gone unseen. The global community knows, takes the record and even sets targets for change. But all the rhetoric has failed to broaden the focus of international health policy. The focus remains too narrow and is failing to adapt to these interlinked global challenges.

The cruellest irony of these deaths is that the solutions are already known. Like tackling an infectious disease where the vaccine has already been created, we know how to end this misery. Clean air, safe streets and active childhoods are not separate issues for child health and have to be tackled together if any of them are going to be solved.

The 'Unfinished Journey' report issued last week by the Child Health Initiative, a coalition of international agencies and experts, calls for political commitment and funding to ensure that the solutions are put in place for every child. Governments must come together at the UN and launch a global response to a neglected health crisis facing children and young people.

So much progress has been made to bring children safely through their early childhood, but much of this is wasted if we do not work to keep them alive as they step out into their environment for the first time. Those steps taken to walk to school should not be ones made in fear. We need to ask the difficult questions of ourselves and our leaders.

Are we really serious about the health and welfare of all our children or are we going to continue to neglect them and allow millions to suffer or die? My grandfather, Nelson Mandela, once said: "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."

It is time we examined ours.