11 April 2007


11 April 2007
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



There had been a dramatic shift in the population structure all over the world, which would allow Singapore to double its population in just two decades, a feat that had taken France an entire century, World Health Organization (WHO) expert Somnath Chatterji said at Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

He said the shift was true of the developing, as well as the developed world, and that there was concern that the latter’s falling fertility rates were already below replacement rates, meaning not enough children were being born even to maintain the population.  The median age of Italy, for example, had increased by more than 20 years over the course of the last century, which meant that, in the next 30 to 35 years, it would be the world’s oldest country, after Spain.  The proportion of Italy’s “retired” people, as compared to the proportion of those in the “productive” age group, would double in the next 40 years.  Moreover, those supposed to retire at the age of 60 or 65 years would live for another 40 years, which was very different from the traditional “10-year horizon” understanding of retirement.

Mr. Chatterji, Coordinator of WHO’s Study on Global Ageing and Adult Health and Team Leader of its Multi-Country Studies, was speaking at a press conference moderated by Hania Zlotnik, Director of the Population Division in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  Accompanying him was Nyovani Madise, Senior Researcher at the Nairobi-based African Population and Health Research Centre and an expert on sexual and reproductive health.

He said the myth of “ageing better like good wine” was probably not true because it was not certain that the “baby boomer” generation in the United States, for example, would continue to remain healthy.  It was also not certain that the same scenario would play out in the developing world, which was actually getting richer before it got older.  That had huge implications, because several chronic illnesses considered “diseases of the rich” were actually very prevalent in the developing world, where older people had faced several health challenges and were unlikely to remain in good health for the last 20 to 30 years of their lives.

They were also being exposed to health risks that the developed world had somehow learned to deal with, tobacco use being a good example, he said.  The use of tobacco had more or less reached a plateau in the developed world and was actually falling among the older population.  In the developing world, however, it remained prevalent, which meant that lung cancer and cardiovascular illnesses would continue to be a problem.  There was a need to examine cross-national data so as to understand how to tackle that complex problem, which could not be ignored.

Ms. Madise underscored the importance of investing in Africa’s youth, particularly their health and education, so they could grow up healthy and well-educated, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by globalization and technology to help the continent develop and emerge from poverty.  It was important to focus on reproductive issues, HIV and AIDS, which were the most pressing needs for young people in Africa, where about half the girls became sexually active by the age of 16 years and half the boys by 17.

She said the problem was that they used neither contraceptives to prevent unplanned pregnancies nor condoms to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and HIV.  There was, therefore, a high prevalence of HIV infection among young Africans, particularly among girls, partly because their young bodies were not very well-equipped to fight infection, and owing to interaction with older people with a higher likelihood of having been infected previously.  Data from Zambia showed that 11 per cent of girls and young women between ages 15 and 24 years were HIV-infected, compared with only about 3 per cent of the boys. 

Population Division projections suggested that about 25 per cent of deaths due to HIV/AIDS would occur among males aged between 15 and 30 years and 40 per cent among girls and young women, she said.  For that reason, it was important to invest in health and education.  Family planning services were needed in order to ensure that those who were sexually active did not have unplanned pregnancies.  It was equally important to invest in HIV information, voluntary counselling and testing, so that people could know their own status and that of their partners, and be able to make informed decisions about sex.

She also underlined the great importance of education, not only for its intrinsic value, but because research suggested that it was very positively linked with health and very strongly linked with responsible population growth, productivity and economic development.  It was essential to make education affordable so that young people from across the economic spectrum could “partake of education opportunities”.  It was also important to address the quality of education and the type of skills that would enable young people to get jobs and be useful members of the economic sector.

There was also a very large proportion of young women and girls who were not taking advantage of educational opportunities, she said, noting, however, that some barriers were cultural and religious.  In other cases, however, the barriers had to do with a failure to take advantage of opportunities.  Within families, girls did most of the household chores or were simply not offered the same chances as boys.  Educated women were more likely to take advantage of health facilities, use contraceptives and ensure better nutrition for their children.

Ms. Zlotnik pointed out that a draft resolution under discussion in the current session of the Commission on Population and Development made the point that different countries were at very different stages in the ageing process, whereby the developed countries had to face a big rise in the proportion of elderly people.  Middle-income countries would see a similarly rapid increase in the same category and must start coping with that growth.  On the other hand, relatively poor countries still had a long way to go before they saw population ageing.  They had to cope with relatively young and very rapidly growing populations.  There was great concern that, because of the challenge posed by HIV/AIDS, more funding was being devoted to combating the epidemic and not enough to promoting family planning.

A correspondent asked how the developing world could have such a large population of ageing people, wracked as it was by diseases and conflicts, whereas the developed world enjoyed the benefits of scientific advances and education.

Mr. Chatterji said, in response, that the population in the developing world continued to age, while life expectancy continued to increase.  That meant that, in the next two-and-a-half decades, the population over the age of 65 would actually triple in absolute terms, and a large majority of that population would live in the developing world.  However, Africa was probably an exception, owing to HIV/AIDS.

Asked by the same correspondent why people in developing countries were living longer, he said there were two reasons.  While many of the developing countries may not have completely overcome infectious diseases, they had succeeded, to a fairly substantial extent, mainly because they had dealt with the vaccine-preventable diseases and early deaths were no longer occurring.  Secondly, there had been a degree of economic development that had trickled down in terms of better health interventions becoming available.  However, people in those countries continued to be exposed to health risks like tobacco, so they would continue to live with still-existing chronic illnesses.

Another journalist asked about the most effective way to communicate to young people about self-protection, and which gender was more receptive.

Ms. Madise replied that young boys were less receptive to information about sex from their parents, while girls could interact with their mothers and ask questions.  But young people generally preferred printed information, which appeared more “official” and accurate, or from health providers and teachers, rather than from peers, which might be more exaggerated and inaccurate.

Asked how ageing would affect Eastern Europe from a social and health standpoint, Mr. Chatterji said that was a matter of great concern, because the population in that region was already below replacement rates, meaning the total population would decrease, the size of the older population would increase and the number of women would also rise, since they generally lived seven years longer than men.  That would have significant implications.

He noted that social security mechanisms had been established in Western Europe, whereby people were given incentives to retire, so much so that their “quality of life” was better after retirement than before.  The real question was how to “incentivize” people to remain in the workforce and continue to contribute to development.  That was particularly important with regard to women, who, while living longer than men, traditionally retired earlier.

Ms. Zlotnik added that women comprised 60 per cent of Europeans aged 80 or more, noting that some countries were already importing foreign labour to care for the elderly, particularly since people were unwilling to perform that task and because families were shrinking in size.

Another correspondent asked about the “superstition” among adult men in Africa that sleeping with a virgin would protect them from AIDS.

Ms. Madise said that, while that perception persisted to some extent, young girls traditionally had sexual partners up to 10 years older, who were able to provide school fees and pocket money in exchange for sexual favours.  That age mix had, to some extent, contributed to the difference in HIV prevalence between boys and girls aged 15 to 24 years.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.