Health inequities lead to early death in many persons with disabilities

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Portrait of a Brazilian student in a sports court. He is a wheelchair user, wearing a white shirt and blue shorts. In the background, other students are wearing a similar sports uniform.

Health inequities lead to early death in many persons with disabilities

A new report by the World Health Organization shows evidence of a higher risk of premature death and illness among many persons with disabilities compared to others in the society. 

The Global report on health equity for persons with disabilities published today shows that because of the systemic and persistent health inequities, many persons with disabilities face the risk of dying much earlier—even up to 20 years earlier—than persons without disabilities.

They have an increased risk of developing chronic conditions, with up to double the risk of asthma, depression, diabetes, obesity, oral diseases, and stroke.  Many of the differences in health outcomes cannot be explained by the underlying health condition or impairment, but by avoidable, unfair and unjust factors.

Launched ahead of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the report shows the number of people with significant disabilities worldwide has risen to 1.3 billion (or 1 in 6 people).  This number reinforces the importance of achieving full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society and embedding the principles of inclusion, accessibility and non-discrimination in the health sector.

The report stresses the need for urgent action to address the vast inequities in health caused by unjust and unfair factors within health systems. These factors—which account for many of the differences in health outcomes between persons with and without disabilities—could take the form of:

“Health systems should be alleviating the challenges that people with disabilities face, not adding to them,” said WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “This report shines a light on the inequities that people with disabilities face in trying to access the care they need. WHO is committed to supporting countries with the guidance and tools they need to ensure all people with disabilities have access to quality health services.”

Recognizing that everyone has the same right to the highest attainable standard of health, the report provides important economic analysis of adopting a disability-inclusive approach.  It shows investing in a disability-inclusive health sector is cost-effective.

WHO calculates that governments could expect a return of about US$ 10 for every US$ 1 invested on disability-inclusive noncommunicable disease prevention and care. In addition, family planning and vaccination are cost–effective when implemented in a disability-inclusive manner.

The report outlines 40 actions across the health sector for governments to take, drawing on the latest evidence from academic studies as well as consultations with countries and civil society, including organizations representing persons with disabilities. These actions vary by resource level and range from addressing physical infrastructure to training of health and care workers.

Ensuring health equity for persons with disabilities will also have wider benefits and can advance global health priorities in 3 ways:

“Addressing health inequities for persons with disabilities benefits everyone,” said Dr Bente Mikkelsen, WHO Director for Noncommunicable Diseases. “Older persons, people with noncommunicable diseases, migrants and refugees, or other frequently unreached populations, can benefit from approaches that target the persistent challenges to disability inclusion in the health sector.”

She added: “We urge governments, health partners and civil society to ensure all health sector actions are inclusive of persons with disabilities so that they can enjoy their right to the highest standard of health.”

To watch the launch event on Friday, 2 December at 14:00 to 15:30 CET/Geneva time, please register at .

Under international human rights law and many countries’ domestic legislation, governments have an obligation to address health inequities so that persons with disabilities have an equal right to realise their highest attainable standard of health.

The , which has 185 parties, commits countries to provide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of affordable health care as provided to other persons on an equal basis with others.

WHO is working with Member States, global partners, disability and health actors, including representative organizations of persons with disabilities, in translating the recommendations in this report into action in countries. This includes developing a Guide for action on disability inclusion in the health sector, which is a national strategic planning tool to support countries to make the changes needed to achieve health equity for persons with disabilities.