2016 marks the celebration of two important milestones: the 50th anniversary of World Literacy Day and the implementation of a new United Nations agenda, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These targets converge on many issues, but one important one is often overlooked, namely, literacy. Broadly defined, literacy is the ability to read and write, and ultimately comprehend information. While these skills are important by themselves, they can be impactful on essential aspects of daily life, particularly health and wellness, and they can affect morbidity and mortality rates. Since the right to health has been declared by the UN since 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, this suggests that these issues are intertwined in such a way that when one improves, the other will consequently improve.
Literacy is a tool used to educate and empower individuals around the world. It is part of Sustainable Development Goal #4, which seeks to “ensure inclusive quality education and promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities and societies.” But literacy means far more than a person’s ability to read and write: it has a direct connection to a person’s quality of life and mortality. Studies have shown that limited literacy acts as an indicator of poor health. It leads to life-threatening errors when taking medication, poorer understanding of diseases and their root causes, as well limited access to preventative care measures. Barriers to literacy also limit people’s ability to address chronic conditions and various other health-related issues. These studies have shown that when a person’s literacy is poor, they face difficulties that others do not, including communicating with healthcare professionals about their health.
Imagine, for example, a scenario where a person has a condition that is not easily diagnosable through basic examination. If the patient lacks the cognitive ability to either describe his or her symptoms, or is incapable of comprehending the instructions given by the medical professional, they will suffer accordingly.
According to the 2015 figures articulated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 757 million adults presently lack literacy skills. This means that a significant portion of the world’s population has an increased mortality rate and a higher risk for health problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that the majority of deaths are the result of chronic conditions. This includes physical ailments like diabetes and hypertension, but also various mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Here is where the two issues converge, creating an opportunity to improvements in both health and literacy.
Health Literacy describes a patient’s ability to process information related to their health. This means that the patient should be able to comprehend the information provided to them by medical professionals, thereby avoiding diagnosis and treatment problems. If a person is unable to obtain or lacks the skills to comprehend certain information, he or she will be unable to properly look out for him or herself, nor make appropriate health-conscious decisions. In order to combat the rise in these conditions, it has been argued that individuals need to engage in the practice of self-management, which outlines the skills and practices needed in order for a person to learn how to live with certain conditions, thus improving their daily lives while simultaneously reducing mortality.
With improved literacy, individuals will be able to self-manage a significant portion of their ailments. Due to the day-to-day nature of many chronic conditions, individuals must be able to understand health information, including instructions regarding a particular health regimen, or the ability to plan and execute any lifestyle changes that need to be made. In countries and particular populations with low literacy rates, the ability to self-manage is diminished. Thus, those individuals are at a higher risk for health problems. For example, an individual with poor literacy skills who suffers from diabetes may be unaware that they are presently living with the condition, or if they do know about it, they may be ignorant of treatment methods. Diabetes typically requires vigilant control over one’s diet and the constant checking of blood sugar, both of which, if done correctly, allow for a relatively normal life. Ignored, and that person may struggle to participate in daily activities. With increased literacy will come the recognition of self-management skills, namely that blood sugar needs to be maintained.
Recognizing the correlation between literacy and health will ultimately benefit both issues. After fifty years of acknowledging literacy as an essential issue, connected to many facets of life for the world, things have certainly improved. There are 50 million fewer illiterate people in the world today than fifteen years ago thanks to the work of governments, the private sector and various organizations dedicated to this issue. Despite this, however, work remains to be done. According to the UNESCO, 250 million children are likely to enter adulthood without basic literacy skills. And these problems do not exist in isolation of other problems: many exist because of a particular population or country’s inability to escape from a cycle of poverty and illiteracy. By improving at least one of these issues, literacy, you will be potentially removing a burden to escaping that cycle, while simultaneously creating a healthier existence for many.
Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).
The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.