Global experts and stakeholders in public health convened in Cape Town for the Urban Health in Africa conference on the 6th and 7th of February 2017 to share research, education, policy and capacity building ideas for improved urban health in Africa going forward.

For the first time in history, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in an urban area – and by 2050, it is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will be living in towns and cities. One effect of rapid urbanisation is the growth of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Almost 75% of global NCD deaths occur in LMICs, resulting in approximately 28 million deaths every year.

In Africa in particular, the unprecedented scale and pace of urbanisation have impacted disease patterns and exacerbated critical health inequities, while posing challenges for sustainability in housing, infrastructure, basic services, food security, education, employment, safety, and natural resources, among others. In addition, health literacy levels may also be lower than in high-income countries, so populations are less likely to engage in health seeking behaviours.

The Novartis Foundation seeks to lead the way in finding solutions to meet this urban health challenge, advocating a multidisciplinary approach to find holistic solutions for healthy cities and communities. One essential activity is to act as a convener of experts and catalyst for ideas.

As such, the Novartis Foundation co-hosted the Urban Health in Africa Dialogue event in Cape Town – the first event of its kind on the African continent – with the International Society for Urban Health (ISUH), InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) for Health, International Council for Science (ICSU), Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF), and the University of Basel.

“Input from diverse scientific disciplines is integral to inform policy, research and practice to meet emerging urban health challenges,” said Executive Officer at Academy of Science of South Africa, Prof Roseanne Diab.

“We believe that by bringing together global and local partners from various sectors and disciplines, we can work to address the underlying risk factors of chronic NCDs in urban settings, which often lie beyond the realm of healthcare,” said Head of the Novartis Foundation, Ann Aerts.

“With their expertise in diverse fields, we hope to identify novel approaches to create robust and sustainable interventions which can have measureable impact on public health,” continued Aerts.

The event began by positioning the challenges and opportunities of achieving health and well-being for all with current trends in urbanisation – while keeping in mind the importance of global international agendas like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), climate change and the Habitat 3 New Urban Agenda.

This was followed by an exploration of the emerging frameworks between urban health and urban planning and the need for multi-disciplinary collaboration to advance common agendas.

Academics looked at emerging urban health challenges, like Coordinator of Public Health and the Environment Department of the WHO, Dr Carlos Dora, who presented on the growing threat of air pollution and its direct link to cancers, heart disease and stroke and the importance of raising awareness about alternative, environmentally friendly transportation practices and energy sources.

This was followed by the drive to create healthy African cities, where Managing Director & Co-Founder at Open Streets, Marcela Guerrero Casas, demonstrated how public spaces can be used to safely and effectively encourage community engagement in achieving urban health.

A main conclusion to come out of the event was the need for public and private resources to come together to strengthen the system of care; and strong, effective leadership to lead the charge.

“One of the most critical roles of the next generation of leaders is to help develop emerging urban environments to serve the wellbeing of their citizens,” concluded Vice President for Education at the University of Basel, Hedwig Kaiser.

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