World Health Day

Protecting health from climate change

On 7 April countries around the world marked World Health Day, an annual celebration to mark the founding of the World Health Organisation in 1948. This year’s theme, “Protecting Health from Climate Change”, was aimed at putting health at the centre of the global dialogue on climate change and to increase global collaboration on issues such as surveillance and control of infectious diseases, ensuring safer use of diminishing water supplies, and co-ordinating health action in emergencies.

Continuing climate change will affect, in profoundly adverse ways, some of the most fundamental determinants of health: food, air and water, according to WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan. Areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.
Global warming pushes up healthcare costs for poor

IRIN reports from the climate change talks in Bangkok in April that authors of a new World Health Organisation (WHO) report say that countries, mostly in the developing world, could spend between US$6 and $18 billion a year by 2030 to manage additional costs to health services as a result of climate change. It adds that rich countries responsible for global warming should help pay towards these additional health costs.

Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, one of the authors of a new WHO report, released on World Health Day, said: “That figure was based on a WHO assessment, which found that modest global warming since the 1970s was already causing over 150,000 excess deaths every year by 2000 – the costs and the estimates would now be higher.”

The assessment was based on studies on the impact of climatesensitive 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. “For example, rates of diarrhoeal disease in Lima, Peru, are 3-4 times higher in the summer than in the winter, increasing by 8% for every 1°C increase in temperature,” he said. “But the 2000 assessment did not take into account the impact of climate change on water stress or displacement of people as a result of famines.” The WHO has announced the launch of a new assessment.

The last decades of the 20th century have also seen the re-emergence and regional spread of many existing climate-sensitive infections: such as cholera and Rift Valley fever in Africa, and dengue in Latin America and South Asia, said the WHO report. “These outbreaks can cause major economic losses. For example, a cholera outbreak in Peru in 1991 cost approximately $770 million, and the 1994 plague outbreak in India $1.7 billion.

“When infectious diseases appear in new locations, where people do not have immunity and health services may not have experience in controlling or treating infections, the effects can be dramatic. When an outbreak of mosquito-borne Chikungunya disease occurred in Réunion in 2005-2006, it affected 1 in 10 of the population and decreased tourism, the island's main economic sector,” said the report.

The burden of climate sensitive diseases is the greatest on the poorest population," said Campbell-Lendrum. For example, the per capita mortality rate from vector-borne diseases is almost 300 times greater in developing nations than in developed regions.

Climate change negotiators in Bangkok signed off on a work plan that includes all the major themes including paying for poor countries' adaptation costs essential to reach a breakthrough agreement on emissions reductions next year in Copenhagen.

Take action

The health impacts of climate change will be difficult to reverse in a few years or decades. Yet, many of these possible impacts can be avoided or controlled. There are established steps in health and related sectors to reduce the exposure to and the effect of changing climate. For example, controlling disease vectors, reducing pollution from transport, and efficient land use and water management are well-known and tested measures that can help.

Moreover, many of the steps needed to prevent climate change have positive health benefits. For example, increased use of bicycles and public transport instead of personal cars in industrialised countries will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will also improve air quality and lead to better respiratory health and fewer premature deaths. The increase in physical activity from cycling and walking may lead to less obesity and fewer obesity-related illness. The sooner these steps are taken, the greater their impact will be on public health.

10 facts on climate change and health

1. Over the past 50 years, human activities – particularly the burning of fossil fuels – have released sufficient quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to affect the global climate. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by more than 30% since pre-industrial times, trapping more heat in the lower atmosphere. The resulting changes in the global climate bring a range of risks to health, from deaths in extreme high temperatures to changing patterns of infectious diseases.

2. From the tropics to the arctic, climate and weather have powerful direct and indirect impacts on human life. Weather extremes – such as heavy rains, floods, and disasters like Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, USA in August 2005 – endanger health as well as destroy property and livelihoods. Approximately 600,000 deaths occurred worldwide as a result of weather-related natural disasters in the 1990s, some 95% of which took place in developing countries.

3. Intense short-term fluctuations in temperature can also seriously affect health – causing heat stress (hyperthermia) or extreme cold (hypothermia) – and lead to increased death rates from heart and respiratory diseases. Recent studies suggest that the record high temperatures in western Europe in the summer of 2003 were associated with a spike of an estimated 70,000 more deaths than the equivalent periods in previous years.

4. Increasing global temperatures affect levels and seasonal patterns of both man-made and natural air-borne particles, such as plant pollen, which can trigger asthma. About 300 million people suffer from asthma, and 255,000 people died of the disease in 2005. Asthma deaths are expected to increase by almost 20% in the next 10 years if urgent actions to curb climate change and prepare for its consequences are not taken.

5. Rising sea levels – another outcome of global warming – increase the risk of coastal flooding, and could cause population displacement. More than half of the world's population now lives within 60 kilometres of shorelines. Some of the most vulnerable regions are the Nile delta in Egypt, the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh, and small island nations such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean. Floods can directly cause injury and death, and increase risks of infection from water and vector-borne diseases. Population displacement could increase tensions and potentially the risks of conflict.

6. More variable rainfall patterns are likely to compromise the supply of fresh water. Globally, water scarcity already affects four out of every 10 people. A lack of water and poor water quality can compromise hygiene and health. This increases the risk of diarrhoea, which kills approximately 1.8 million people every year, as well as trachoma (an eye infection that can lead to blindness) and other illnesses.

7. Water scarcity encourages people to transport water long distances and store supplies in their homes. This can increase the risk of household water contamination, causing illnesses.

8. Climatic conditions affect diseases transmitted through water, and via vectors such as mosquitoes. Climate-sensitive diseases are among the largest global killers. Diarrhoea, malaria and protein-energy malnutrition alone caused more than 3 million deaths globally in 2002, with over one third of these deaths occurring in Africa.

9. Malnutrition causes millions of deaths each year, from both a lack of sufficient nutrients to sustain life and a resulting vulnerability to infectious diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea, and respiratory illnesses. Increasing temperatures on the planet and more variable rainfalls are expected to reduce crop yields in many tropical developing regions, where food security is already a problem. Mali is a good example. Unless adaptive measures are taken, climate change is projected to approximately double by the 2050s the percentage of its population at risk of hunger and associated health effects.

10. Steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or lessen the health impacts of climate change could have positive health effects. For example, promoting the safe use of public transportation and active movement – such as biking or walking as alternatives to using private vehicles – could reduce carbon dioxide emissions and improve public health. They can not only cut traffic injuries, but also air pollution and associated respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Increased levels of physical activity can lower overall mortality rates.

Credit: WHO

 Date of upload: 3rd May 2008

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