Mitigating climate change can reduce health risks, WHO says

The first-ever global conference on climate and health closed on Friday (August, 29) after three days of meetings at WHO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Over 300 participants including government ministers, heads of UN agencies, urban leaders, civil society and experts in the fields of public health, climate and sustainable-development, discussed the need for stronger action on climate-related health risks. The phenomenon is getting more alarming year by year. “The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General.

According to WHO data, climate change is already causing tens of thousands of extra-deaths every year through shifting patterns of disease, extreme weather events, such as heat-waves and floods, degradation of water supplies, and impacts on agriculture. Extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and raise the levels of ozone and other pollutants in the air. Each year weather-related natural disasters result in over 60 000 deaths globally, mainly in developing countries, while increasingly variable rainfall patterns affect the supply of fresh water and the production of staple foods in many of the poorest regions, exacerbating malnutrition and undernutrition. Moreover, WHO experts highlighted that changes in climate are likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases, such as schistosomiasis, malaria and dengue, and to alter their geographic range.

All populations will be affected by climate change, but some are more vulnerable than others: people living in small island developing states and other coastal regions, megacities, and mountainous and polar regions.”Vulnerable populations, the poor, the disadvantaged and children are among those suffering the greatest burden of climate-related impacts and consequent diseases, such as malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition, which already kill millions every year”, notes Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health. “Without effective action to mitigate and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change on health, society will face one of its most serious health challenges,” she says.

The key message of the conference is that solutions exist. “[…] Reducing climate change can yield substantial and immediate health benefits” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “The most powerful example is air pollution, which in 2012 was responsible for 7 million deaths – one in eight of all deaths worldwide. There is now solid evidence that mitigating climate change can greatly reduce this toll,” she adds. Cleaner energy systems and public transportation as alternative to private vehicles could reduce carbon emissions while cutting the burden of household air pollution, which causes some 4.8 million deaths per year, and ambient air pollution, which causes about 3.7 million deaths every year, WHO said. Adaptation measures could also ensure that communities are better prepared to deal with the impact of heat, extreme weather, infectious disease and food insecurity.

The conference results are expected to be discussed during the upcoming Climate Summit organized by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, taking place in New York on September 23.