Climate Change

The biggest threat to health in the 21st Century

Climate change will be the biggest global health threat in the 21st century, but little is known about its possible effects on developing countries, where the impact will be felt most, says a new report.

“Information that is reliable, accurate, and disseminated is fundamental for effective adaptation and to avoid the so-called adaptation apartheid,” said the report by a commission set up by the British medical journal, The Lancet, and the University College London (UCL) Institute for Global Health, in a cooperative advocacy effort to highlight the threat of global warming to health.

The authors called for a collation of global expertise on the health effects of climate change at a major conference within the next two years to define the priorities for management, implementation, and monitoring. “We are standing at the tip of a problem – it is just like where we were with HIV 25 years ago,” said Anthony Costello, the main author of the report.

Besides rising temperatures and a higher frequency of natural disasters like droughts and floods, the impact of other climate changes on food and water security would also affect health, he said.

In the report, ‘Managing the health effects of climate change’, the team of researchers focused on six key areas: patterns of disease and mortality; food security; water and sanitation; shelter and human settlements; extreme events; and population migration.

Modest global warming since the 1970s was already causing over 150,000 excess deaths every year by 2000, according to a study by the World Health Organisation. This assessment was based on studies on the impact of climate-sensitive illnesses like diarrhoeal disease, which is the second leading infectious cause of childhood mortality, and accounts for a total of around 1.8 million deaths each year.

Countries, mostly in the developing world, could be spending from US$6 million to $18 billion a year by 2030 to manage additional costs to health services as a result of climate change, a study based on the WHO assessment noted.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, an international scientific body, said rising temperatures and the frequency of extreme events could exacerbate climate-sensitive illnesses like malaria, cholera, Rift Valley fever and dengue fever, adversely affecting human health in developing countries.

Geographic location and thinner financial and human resources also play a role: 70% of natural disasters between 2004 and 2006 occurred in Asia, the Pacific region, Africa and the Middle East, where most of the world’s vulnerable and exposed populations live.

Costello, who heads the Centre for International Health and Development at UCL, said hardly any projections of the impact of climate change in developing countries, particularly in Africa, had been made, which was of great concern.

He told IRIN that while data on the impact of heat waves in the USA and Europe existed, almost no reliable data for heat waves - a “silent killer” - were available for Africa or south Asia.

“You can already see the impact unfolding in countries like Bangladesh, where this year temperatures have soared at least four degrees Celsius above the average temperatures recorded for this time of the year,” said Costello.

The report also noted the “massive inequality in health systems”, and pointed out that “the loss of healthy life-years as a result of global environmental change is predicted to be 500 times higher in Africa than in European nations, despite Africa making a minimal contribution to the causes of climate change”.

Costello said the report highlighted the need for vulnerable countries to conduct regional and local assessments of the possible impact of climate change on health, and that the international community needed to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which would lower the risk of extreme events and indirectly improve health.

“The big message of this report is that climate change is a health issue affecting billions of people,” he said. “[It’s] not just an environmental issue about polar bears and deforestation.”

Global warming

On the occasion of World Health Day last year, Dr Chan said “The core concern is succinctly stated: climate change endangers human health. The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events – more storms, floods, droughts and heat waves -- will be abrupt and acutely felt. Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter and freedom from disease.”

Human beings are already exposed to the effects of climate-sensitive diseases and these diseases today kill millions. They include malnutrition, diarrhoeal diseases and malaria.

These trends and events cannot be attributed solely to climate change but they are the types of challenges we expect to become more frequent and intense with climate changes. They will further strain health resources that, in many regions, are already under severe stress.

“Although climate change is a global phenomenon, its consequences will not be evenly distributed,” said Dr Chan. “In short, climate change can affect problems that are already huge, largely concentrated in the developing world, and difficult to control.”

In India, Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region, highlighted six health outcomes that will be directly impacted by climate change in South-East Asia. Although he refers specifically to SE Asia, such a scenario is likely in most Developing Countries around the world.

“Air quality will suffer greatly and respiratory illnesses will be exacerbated. Heat waves will be more intense and of longer duration, mainly affecting the most vulnerable populations in children and elderly through heat strokes and cardiovascular complications” he said.

The six health outcomes which are likely to be affected by climate change in the Region are: respiratory diseases, vectorborne diseases (malaria and dengue), waterborne diseases (diarrhoea and cholera), malnutrition, injuries and psychosocial stress. Urgent action is needed to strengthen the existing health systems to deal with the potential increase in health risks due to climate change.

The most vulnerable people will be the poor, because they have fewer resources to adapt to the rapid changes of the natural environment on which their livelihoods depend.

WHO resolution

At the 61st World Health Assembly last year delegates requested WHO and committed their own Ministries of Health to take action to protect health from climate change. They adopted a resolution that urges Member States to take decisive action to address health impacts from climate change, warning of its potential risks on human health. The resolution calls on the health sector

● to scale up adaptation projects that would limit the impacts of climate change on health;

● to raise global awareness of the impacts of health from climate change at national and international levels; and

● to boost political attention and action. Member States also called on WHO to develop and strengthen the evidence base on links between climate change and health, and to help developing countries address health impacts from climate change.

● Conference: The Health Consequences of Global Warming, Riyadh, KSA (6 – 7 Oct, 2009) Tel: +966-1-464 7272 Ext: 31912

ate of upload: 15th July 2009

                                               Copyright © 2009 All Rights Reserved.