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WHO launches ‘first global initiative to tackle the epidemic of loneliness,’ with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy as co-chair and Google exec Karen DeSalvo among members

Jason Koerner—Getty Images for Concordia Summit

The World Health Organization will launch a commission on social connection, “the first global initiative to tackle the epidemic of loneliness,” the group’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced Wednesday.

The group—to be led by co-chairs U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Chido Mpemba, youth envoy at the African Union Commission—will work to understand the health risks of social isolation and effective solutions, Ghebreyesus said. It will be comprised of 11 "leading policymakers, thought leaders, and advocates," including Murthy and Mpemba, and run for three years, according to the WHO. Its first meeting will be held Dec. 6-8, and a report will be released in about a year and a half.

While more commissioners may be appointed at a later date, current members include:

  • Karen DeSalvo, chief health officer for Google

  • Ayuko Kato, minister in charge of measures for loneliness and isolation in Japan

  • Khalid Ait Taleb, minister of health and social protection in Morocco

  • Jakob Forssmed, minister for health and social affairs in Sweden

  • Ximena Aguilera Sanhueza, minister of health in Chile

  • Cleopa Mailu, permanent representative to the UN for Kenya

  • Ralph Regenvanu, minister of climate change for Vanuatu

  • Haben Girma, deaf and blind advocate and artist from the U.S.

  • Hina Jilani, leader and human rights lawyer from Pakistan

Loneliness “takes a toll not only on the quality of individuals’ lives, but has enormous economic consequences,” with depression and anxiety costing the global economy $1 trillion each year, Murthy said during a WHO press conference announcing the initiative.

“For too long loneliness has existed behind the shadows, unseen and under-appreciated,” draining communities of their wellbeing, Murthy said. “Now we have an opportunity to change that.”

There are many initiatives around the globe to promote social connection, but "we don't yet know which ones work best," Ghebreyesus said. "We need global leadership."

Mpemba said Wednesday that she will help ensure "young people are fully represented, including at the decision-making table." Loneliness "transcends borders but is becoming a global health concern," she added.

Social media both contributes to the issue and is part of a possible solution, said Dr. Etienne Krug, director of the Department of Social Determinants of Health at the WHO, adding that the committee would look into the matter.

Possible solutions may include cognitive behavioral therapy, which has "been tried and worked in some countries," in addition to making public transportation more accessible for those who don't have the resources to visit others, and creating small groups around gardening and other physical activities.

"We're in the early days," Krug said, "but that's what the commission certainly is going to be looking into."

Social problem, physical effects

One in four people experiences social isolation, Ghebreyesus said, with potential mental and physical health effects as a result. Loneliness increases the risk of dementia by up to 50%, and the risk of strokes and cardiovascular disease by around 30%.

It also increases the risk of premature death, depression, and suicide, Murthy said, adding that nearly an eighth of the world's population—roughly 1 billion people—are living with a mental health disorder, including 14% of the world's adolescents.

While loneliness increases the chance of health issues, social connectedness decreases them, with evidence showing a link to better heart and brain health, as well as immunity, as a result, according to Murthy.

This spring he released a surgeon general advisory on the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” in the U.S., calling it a "public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health.” Such advisories are reserved for "significant public health challenges that need the American people's attention," according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” Murthy said in a statement at the time.

“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders,” he added.

Indeed, lack of social connection can lead to just as great of a risk—or an even greater risk—of early death as other major public health issues, including smoking, excessive drinking, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and air pollution.

Loneliness poses as much of a health risk as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, Murthy said earlier this year.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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