Chapter 2 – Contemporary Threats to Health

Lecturer PowerPoint
Lecturer Lesson Plan
Additional Case Study
3 Papers
3 Websites
3 Media Articles
Learning Tasks Discussion
Issues you may have considered in relation to the Learning Tasks in the book…

Learning Task 1: The significance of health threats

‘Health’ and what it means to be ‘healthy’ are subjective and our individual understandings of health reflect this, as do our perceptions of what threats to health are the most significant. It is likely that your list of ranked threats is different to other people’s and very much influenced by the social context in which you live. For example, if you live in the Global North and rarely travel, then malaria as a threat to your own health will have been ranked very low on the list, similar to drought and famine. However, an individual who lives in sub-Saharan Africa is more likely to rate these issues are a more significant health threat. What other things influenced your decision-making? Did you consider media reports? Lots of media coverage in 2019 and 2020 was related to weather (floods, fires, etc.), so does this make these issues seem more salient? What about your social networks and experiences of specific illnesses: did they also influence the way in which you ordered the list of threats to health?

Learning Task 2: Hypertension and health

You may have included influences such as age, genetics, inactivity, life-style (e.g. being obese, have a poor diet, etc.).

How did the websites that you used to help you with this task describe the causes of hypertension? Many websites describe ‘risk factors’ as part of causation rather than threats; however, what is the difference between these two terms? In terms of this condition, did you also explore how hypertension is a threat to health? If not then re-visit the internet to do so.

Learning Task 3: HPV media coverage

The evaluation of risk is entirely subjective and our individual understandings of risk are therefore very different. Thus, for some women the risk of contracting the HPV virus would be more worrying than any potential side effects. The perception of risk would be influenced by many factors such as the age of the woman, her overall attitude to sexual health, her financial position, her religious beliefs and whether or not she is in a relationship and therefore her partner’s attitude. In these circumstances where media reports draw attention to risks there is also potentially unrealistic evaluation of risks as a result of the stories and statistics presented, hence media reports may serve to distort and increase risk perceptions.

Learning Task 4: Analysing trends in life expectancy

Generally, as income increases within all of the countries, then so too does life expectancy, giving the impression that high income leads to high life expectancy. However, the trends depicted upon the graph show that Cuba overall has a high life expectancy but much lower income than Australia. Furthermore, life expectancy within the Democratic Republic of Congo was increasing steadily alongside income but then has begun to regress, i.e. life expectancy has actually decreased.

As Contemporary Health Studies demonstrates throughout, there is a range of influences upon health, and economics is just one aspect of a society that influences health in the form of life expectancy. There are other influences, too: for example, the social policy environment (see chapter 11), global policies (see chapter 12) and many contemporary threats to health such as war (see chapter 2). Are you able to see how these influences relate to the trends shown in the data that you explored?

Multiple Choice Quiz

1. A number of factors affect how threats to health are conceptualized including all but one of the following. Select the answer which is NOT a factor.
a. Media reports about health and health issues
b. The magnitude of threats
c. The severity of threats
d. Improved diagnostic tests for the detection of infectious diseases


The correct answer is d: whilst improved diagnostic tests are useful when dealing with infectious diseases, they do not influence how a threat is conceptualized. Answer a is incorrect because media reports do influence how threats to health are constructed, e.g. chapter 2 discusses how the media can create moral panics about some threats to health; answers b and c are incorrect because, as chapter 2 discusses, the number of people affected by a threat and the severity of threats influence their conceptualization.

2. Increased numbers of threats to health are reported within contemporary society because of:
a. the social amplification of risk associated with moral panics
b. the medicalization of everyday conditions
c. the pharmaceuticalization of medical practice
d. increasing research publications about specific illnesses


The correct answer is a. Chapter 2 discusses how the media have been influential in enhancing the fear of risk by over-reporting health scares despite actual risks being small. Whilst the medicalization of everyday conditions is argued to be increasing (see chapter 4), this is not usually related to reports of increased health threats; rather it is about everyday conditions being subsumed under the medical umbrella as requiring diagnosis and treatment. Similarly, whilst the pharmaceuticalization of medical practice is discussed within the sociological literature, this is about treatment rather than the reporting of increased threats.

3. Threats to health are changing, with contemporary patterns of illnesses labelled as being in ‘epidemiological transition’ (Gaye et al 2019). This phrase means that there has been:
a. a shift from non-communicable diseases to more communicable diseases
b. a shift from communicable diseases to more non-communicable diseases
c. a shift to include greater risks from disasters and terrorism
d. a shift to include greater risks because of rising HIV/Aids rates


The correct answer is b: non-communicable diseases are the ones that are increasing, e.g. life-style-associated diseases such as obesity and heart disease, whilst communicable/infectious diseases have reduced especially within the Global North and higher-income countries. HIV/AIDS rates have risen within contemporary society but are now stabilizing according to the latest figures. Whilst disasters and terrorism are now contemporary threats to health, the term epidemiological transition refers to a shift from communicable diseases to more non-communicable diseases.

4. Climate change is likely to negatively affect health in a number of ways, including all but one of the following. Select the answer which is NOT a negative health effect.
a. As a result of extreme weather events, more deaths will occur
b. Food supplies are likely to be affected and therefore result in higher levels of malnutrition
c. Disease vectors will change and so mosquito-borne infections will spread to new locations
d. Degraded environments will result in better human development programmes


The correct answer is d because it is not describing how climate change will affect negatively affect health. The other answers are incorrect since, as chapter 2 outlines, extreme weather events are likely to result in increased death rates, climate change is likely to affect food supplies and thus lead to higher levels of malnutrition, and climate change is likely to affect disease vectors with the result of mosquito-borne infections spreading to new locations.

5. The growing world population is described as a threat to health because:
a. increased population numbers will result in more threats to safety and global security
b. increased population numbers will lead to higher demands for resources such as food, shelter and water
c. increased population numbers mean better opportunities for economic development
d. increased population numbers result in the diversification of attitudes to health education


The correct answer is b: as chapter 2 outlines, the increasing world population will lead to higher demands for resources including food, shelter and water. Increased population numbers do not necessarily result in more threats to safety and global security; increased population numbers may mean better economic development although opinion remains divided about whether this is the case, and whether this is always good for health; and there is no relationship between increasing population numbers and changing attitudes to health education.

6. The world population is ageing and there are debates about how best to provide for a healthy older age. Such provision should include all but ONE of the following. Select the answer which is NOT part of the recommended approach.
a. Training for professionals in relation to old-age care
b. The promotion of positive images of older people
c. The creation of social policies to ensure that all older people pay for their long-term care needs
This answer is correct,
d. The prevention and management of age-associated chronic conditions


The correct answer is c: chapter 2 discusses different approaches to supporting healthy ageing, but this is not within the recommendations made.

7. Poverty and inequality are conceptualized as threats to health under which model of health?
a. Social constructionism model
This answer is incorrect,
b. Social protectionism model
This answer is incorrect,
c. Social determinants model
d. Social facts model


The correct answer is c. The social constructionism model is concerned with the social construction of reality (see chapter 4) rather than the conceptualization of threats to health. The social protectionism model is concerned with the creation and implementation of social policies to deal with vulnerability such as unemployment rather than the conceptualization of threats to health. There is no ‘social facts model’.

8. Mental health represents a significant global health burden with statistics in this area likely to be:
a. a significant over-representation of morbidity
b. a significant under-estimation of morbidity
c. inaccurate, as they don’t represent holistic health figures
d. inaccurate, as they don’t represent people’s experiences


The correct answer is b: given the stigma associated with the reporting of mental illness (see chapter 4), such figures are likely to be a significant under-estimation of morbidity. Answer c s incorrect: whilst the figures may well be inaccurate because defining and therefore measuring holistic health is problematic (see chapter 1), mental health can be measured in a number of ways. Answer d is incorrect: statistics do not measure people’s experiences but this does not make them inaccurate (see chapter 3 for further discussion about different research approaches and tools).

9. All but one of the following are described as significant threats to health within contemporary society. Select the answer which is NOT a threat to health.
a. Infectious diseases
b. Life-style diseases
c. Poverty and inequality
d. The misreporting of scientific research findings


The correct answer is d: the misreporting of scientific research findings – for example within the media – may affect our understandings and perceptions of risk but this in itself is not a significant threat to health within contemporary society. As chapter 2 outlines, infectious diseases, life-style diseases, and poverty and inequality are significant threats to health within contemporary society.

Additional Case Study: The rise of natural disasters which threaten health

The rise of natural disasters can be clearly seen in media reports across the world because earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and extreme weather events are becoming more regular, and result in many injuries and deaths; for example, the 2004 Christmas tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina on the US Coast in 2005, and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan left nearly 300,000 people dead as well as millions of people homeless (Bohannon 2005). In 2019, several meteorological disasters occurred across the world such as cyclones, storms, floods; for example, floods in the North of England in January 2020, wild-fires in various areas of Australia during 2019, and earthquakes in a variety of locations.

Aside from the immediate deaths that these events bring, there are many public health consequences which emerge in the aftermath and act as further threats to health; for example, homelessness, injuries, illnesses, infectious diseases, psychosocial effects, loss of jobs and social dislocation. There may also be disruption to the health system infrastructure and wider damage to the eco-system, which again has implications for health (Schultz et al 2005). Therefore, the rise of natural disasters continues to threaten health and create the need for disaster management in the short-term as well as longer-term planning to deal with all the consequences which are detrimental to health.

Debates about the extent to which extreme weather is increasingly caused by the impact of humans on the environment feature in media coverage. Watts (2019) highlights the potentially detrimental impact of environmental degradation and the destruction of nature upon public health. Insect population decline affects pollination and therefore crops, and food supply. The future is also likely to involve water shortages and climate instability, which will impact upon health and quality of life across the world.


Bohannon, J. (2005) ‘Breakthrough of the year: disasters – searching for lessons from a bad year’ Science 310, 5756, pp. 1883.

Schultz, J.M., Russell, J. and Espinel, Z. (2005) ‘Epidemiology of tropical cyclones: the dynamics of disaster, disease and development’ Epidemiologic Reviews 27, 1, pp. 21-35.

Watts, J. (2019) ‘Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life’ The Guardian 6th May 2019.

3 Papers

Hawkes, N. (2019) ‘Asthma: traffic pollution is blamed for one in eight new cases in children’ British Medical Journal LINK
This one-sided research news article paper outlines traffic pollution as a threat to health because of its link to increasing incidences of asthma.

Levy, B.S & Sidel, V.W. (2016) ‘Documenting the Effects of Armed Conflict on Population Health’ Annual Review of Public Health 37, pp. 205–18. LINK
This paper explores the need for further research and documentation of the impact of war upon population health, recognizing that war and any other form of armed conflict adversely impact upon health. The authors recommend the establishment of an independent mechanism.

Rehm, J. & Shield, K.D. (2019) ‘Global Burden of Disease and the Impact of Mental and Addictive Disorders’ Current Psychiatry Reports 21: 10. LINK
This paper discusses how mental and addictive disorders affect a significant portion of the global population, especially in high- and upper-middle-income countries. The shame and stigma associated with such disorders are also reflected upon, as well as the need for further studies to explore the impacts of these upon life expectancy. The relative share of these disorders has increased in the past decades, in part due to stigma and lack of treatment. Future research needs to better analyse the role of mental and addictive disorders in shifts of life expectancy.

3 Websites

1. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
This website was set up in 2005 to identify, assess and communicate current and emerging threats to human health posed by infectious diseases. The website contains a news section, epidemiological updates and numerous publications about current infectious diseases in Europe such as influenza, measles and COVID-19.

2. World Health Organization website
This website reflects the work of the WHO, reporting on current threats to health on a daily basis. There are news reports about TB rates, malaria and other infectious diseases, figures and statistics for the top ten leading causes of death and many more in-depth reports for example about the relationship between climate change and negative health outcomes.

3. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters
This website is the home of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, which explores international disaster and conflict health studies. Research is focused upon humanitarian emergencies, with a special focus on public health and epidemiology. The Centre provides an evidence base on the burden of disease and health issues arising from disasters and conflicts, and contains a variety of publications, reports and news items.

3 Media Articles

1. England facing ‘changing health needs’
This report discusses how the ageing population and changing health demands require a different response from the National Health Service.

2. Life expectancy gap widens between rich and poor women
This report outlines some of the changing patterns of life expectancy in the UK and compares inequalities across different socio-economic areas.

3. Climate change poses unprecedented health risks to children, major study warns
This newspaper report discusses the relationship between climate change and the health of children, drawing upon evidence from an article published in The Lancet.