World health statistics 2021: monitoring health for the SDGs, sustainable development goals


Published in May 2021, this report by the World Health Organization monitors global health indicators and measures countries’ progress towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and WHO’s Triple Billion targets for global healthcare. The publication traces the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on livelihoods and health systems across the world, advocating measures for immediate and equitable recovery. This is the 17th edition of the World health statistics, the first of which was published in the year 2005.

The 2021 report highlights inequalities in health access and outcomes, both within and among countries, keeping in mind the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ‘leave no one behind’. It notes the rise in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy rates globally, despite the persistence of systemic inequalities in health access. In recent years, deaths from suicide, homicide, road traffic injuries, and unintentional poisoning have seen a steady fall. At the same time, the decline in premature deaths from non-communicable diseases – a leading cause of death worldwide – has been relatively slow.

The 136-page report consists of five sections: The impact of COVID-19 on population health (Section 1); Healthy life expectancy and burden of disease (Section 2); Risks to health (Section 3); Universal health coverage (Section 4); and Accelerating progress towards health-related SDGs and Triple Billion targets (Section 5).


  1. The World health statistics 2021 notes that inequalities in vaccine distribution risk perpetuating the pandemic and threaten to derail the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As of May 2021, the report states, low-income countries received only one per cent of the total Covid-19 vaccine doses, lower-middle-income countries received 19 per cent, upper-middle-income countries got 33 per cent and high-income countries got 47 per cent.

  2. In early 2021, the WHO conducted its second pulse survey to assess the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on essential health services worldwide. It recorded disruptions in at least one essential health service in 89 per cent of the 135 surveyed countries. However, the study noted significant improvements in average disruptions within countries from the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

  3. The global life expectancy at birth (the average number of years a newborn is estimated to live) increased from 66.8 years in 2000 to 73.3 years in 2019. Meanwhile, healthy life expectancy at birth (average number of years a newborn is expected to live in ‘full health’) rose from 58.3 years to 63.7 years in the same period. The increase in life expectancy has been slightly faster than the rise in healthy life expectancy, indicating a greater number of years “lived with disability.”

  4. Life expectancy and healthy life expectancy rates for females have been consistently higher than males.

  5. Globally, deaths caused by non-communicable diseases have increased from 60.8 per cent in 2000 to 73.6 per cent in 2019. At the same time, there has been a steep fall in premature mortality due to communicable diseases.

  6. In 2019, more than 85 per cent of the total deaths in high-income countries were caused by non-communicable diseases, with heart diseases, dementia and strokes accounting for the majority of cases.

  7. About half of the total deaths in low-income countries were caused by communicable diseases like respiratory infections, diarrhoeal diseases, malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.

  8. There were around 10 million new cases of tuberculosis in the year 2019. The most affected region was South-East Asia, which recorded 44 per cent of the world’s case load. Additionally, eight countries (India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa) accounted for around two-thirds of all tuberculosis cases.

  9. The report observes a reduction in global tobacco and alcohol use. The number of current tobacco users fell from 33.3 per cent in the year 2000 to 23.6 per cent in 2018.

  10. Women and children in low- and lower-middle-income countries are at a higher risk of malnutrition, stunting (low height-for-age), wasting (low weight for age) and anaemia. In 2020, lower-middle-income countries accounted for most of world’s malnourished children, with 59 per cent of the total stunted children and 72 per cent of total wasted children. Additionally, low-income countries have seen a slight increase in hypertension rates.

  11. The global obesity rate for adults increased from 8.7 per cent in 2000 to 13.1 per cent in 2016. This was seen especially in high-income and upper-middle-income countries.

  12. Low-income countries are the main drivers of growth in global healthcare service coverage. This is due to their interventions on infectious diseases as well as reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health services.

  13. The report emphasises the importance of timely and reliable disaggregated health statistics. Only 51 per cent of the 133 countries examined in the World health statistics 2021 included disaggregated data in their national health reports.

    Focus and Factoids by Tathagat Singh.

    PARI Library's health archive project is part of an initiative supported by the Azim Premji University to develop a free-access repository of health-related reports relevant to rural India.


World Health Organization


World Health Organization


21 May, 2021