My how we've grown since July 11, 1987 — as a global population. Back then there were five billion of us crowding this planet. The United Nations declared July 11 of that year "Five Billion Day" to mark the estimated date on which we reached that milestone.

Two years later, the UN declared every subsequent July 11 to be World Population Day as an effort to increase awareness of issues such as the importance of family planning, gender equality, poverty, maternal health and elderly care.

Sometime this year — the UN figures around Oct. 31 — global population will hit seven billion. That's a growth of 40 per cent in just over 20 years. The planet's population has doubled since 1968.

In 1804, there were one billion people in the world. It took 123 years for that number to double.

World youth by the numbers

  • 3 billion under the age of 25.
  • 43% of the world's population.
  • 60% live in the least developed countries.

The UN Population Division expects the population to keep growing until the middle of this century, despite dramatic declines in fertility rates around the world.

The vast majority of current population growth is in the developing world. Approximately 97 out of every 100 people are born in countries that are already struggling to meet the needs of their citizens.

"Whether we can live together on a healthy planet will depend on the decisions we make now," Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said in a news release.

World poverty by the numbers

  • 1 billion people go hungry every day.
  • 2 billion live on less than $2 a day.
  • 1 billion lack access to clean water.
  • 1,000 women die in pregnancy or childbirth every day.

"The date we reach the next billion — and the ones after that — depends on policy and funding decisions made now about maternal and child health care, access to voluntary family planning, girls' education, and expanded opportunities for women and young people."

Osotimehin adds that 215 million women in developing countries don't have access to effective family planning.

That's part of the message for World Population Day 2011. UNFPA and its partners are kicking off a campaign to raise awareness of the seven key issues they've identified as the most important as the world's population hits seven billion. Among the issues that the 7 Billion Actions campaign addresses are:

  • Breaking the cycle of poverty and inequality to help slow population growth.
  • Engaging young people to transform global politics and culture.
  • Protecting reproductive health and rights to ensure that every child is wanted and every birth is safe.
  • Planning for an increasingly urban planet as the next two billion people will live in cities.
  •  Planning for an aging population as population growth slows.

However, protecting reproductive rights takes more than words in a campaign. In the days leading up to World Population Day, The Lancet published an editorial criticizing another branch of the UN, saying it "buckled" to the efforts of the U.S.-based group Family Watch International (FWI) at the UN High-Level Meeting on Aids in June.

The group fought and won concessions on language surrounding sex education. The group described programs to improve awareness of sex and its relation to health as "insidious" and said educational initiatives promoted promiscuity.

The Lancet warned that by making the changes, "25 years of progress in strengthening the rights of women to equitable access to health services are now under threat."