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Moving towards the Urban Health agenda in Latin America

by Manuel Limonta, ICSU ROLAC Director

The exponential increase of the world population; large migration flows; the search for opportunities, among others, are just a few of the various reasons cities are growing at an accelerated pace, bringing with it endless challenges and opportunities that cannot be ignored and much less neglected. According to a recent report by the United Nations Population Division, half of the world’s population lives in urban areas today1, and by 2050 more than 70% of the population will live in cities2. Latin America, without a doubt, is not exempt from this reality, especially when the same report asserts that most of the growth of the world population is expected in urban areas of the poorest regions of the world. In view of the above, ICSU ROLAC responded to this reality by creating a new priority area for the region: Urban Health.

The Global Report on Urban Health: Healthy and Equitable Cities for Sustainable Development3 presents alarming data on Latin America. For example, according to the aforementioned report, 1 in 5 people live in poor housing, characterized by overcrowding, lack of access to drinking water and sanitation. It also states that “rapid urbanization can introduce predominant diseases in remote rural areas in cities” (p.18), and a clear example of this is the different outbreaks of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes such as Dengue, Zika, ChiKungunya, among others. Similarly, a report prepared by the World Health Organization and UNHABITAT states that the concentration of poverty in overcrowded urban areas also poses a greater risk of violence, with about 70% of victims in Latin America residing in the city. Finally, the report points to other aspects that directly or indirectly affect the health of the population in urban areas, such as: unplanned growth of housing, roads, recreation areas, poor access to drinking water sources, lack of medical care, among others.

Far from being discouraged in this arduous work, the scenario described above and based on serious and reliable studies, gives us opportunities, which we must identify and address. One of the opportunities is to approach the issue of urban health from a different perspective. ICSU through its global Urban Health and Welfare (UHW) program aims to provide answers to many of the questions posed by this issue. Franz Gatzweiler states that “Understanding how the city behaves as a complex sociological-ecological-technological system, applying a systemic approach, allows us to activate the potential benefits for the health and urban well-being of populations” 4. The UHW program pursues five objectives5: (1) Promote a systemic approach to human health and well-being in an urban environment between scientists and decision makers; (2) Strengthen capacity for health research; (3) Advocate funding for systems approaches to health; (4) Improve understanding and understanding of urban health; And (5) Influence the international policy agenda of urban health initiatives.

ICSU ROLAC is playing its role within this global and regional scenario. Evidence of such an assertion is the actions taken so far in the ROLAC Secretariat. First, in the middle of 2016, ROLAC decided to incorporate Urban Health as a priority area for the region, thus initiating the work on such agenda. Secondly, in October 2016, the first Urban Health workshop was held in order to diagnose the situation of urban health in the host country. This activity was attended by national and international experts and resulted in the establishment and coordination of a working group to follow up on the conclusions and lines of action that emerged from the workshop. Finally, a second workshop has been scheduled to be held on 28-29 September 2017, which is going to be regional, and it will have the support of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS).

The Second Urban Health Workshop seeks to create a synergy at the regional level with the experience of participating countries in Urban Health matters. In addition, it seeks to identify other actions that are carried out in the region and in other parts of the world, in order to establish feedback networks that can foster the urban health work at the regional level. Likewise, another workshop is expected for 2018 in which all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean can participate. It should be noted that everything that has been achieved so far has been possible thanks to the unparalleled effort of the ICSU ROLAC Urban Health working group.

ICSU ROLAC will continue to carry out all necessary efforts to provide continuity and follow-up to this new priority area, with experience, a wide network of scientific contacts, and, above all, goodwill to favor society through science.


  1. United Nations. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2003 Revision. United Nations; 2004. Cited 26 February 2007. [Ref list]
  2. World Health Organization (n.d) Health Topics, Urban Health, available at, accessed July 2017.
  3. World Health Organization. Global report on urban health: equitable, healthier cities for sustainable development, page 82. en/. Accessed in June 2017.
  4. Gatsweiler, F (2016) Advancing Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment: Implementing a Systems Approach, Urban Health Workshop in San Salvador, El Salvador. Available at .pdf, accessed in July 2017.
  5. ICSU (2007) Towards a Systems Analysis Approach to Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment: report of a CSPR ad hoc Scoping Group on Human Health. Available at Accessed in July 2017.

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