Climate Change Biggest Threat to Health, New Study

JOHANNESBURG, 14 May 2009 (IRIN) — 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 Organization.   This assessment was based on studies on the impact of climate-sensitive illnesses like diarrheal 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 percent 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.

Lack of Health Impact Projections

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.”

This article was first published by IRIN.