30 October 2012

Accounting for the Cost of Climate on Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) collaborated to launch a new report that brings forward information regarding the connections between public health and climate. The jointly published Atlas of health and climate covers a range of climate-related issues and their impact on health.

The WHO estimated that climate-sensitive diseases like diarrhea, malaria and malnutrition caused more than 3 million deaths globally in 2004. The burden of those deaths were in Africa where one in three took place. "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 2.2 million people every year, as well as trachoma (an eye infection that can lead to blindness) and other illnesses," says the WHO.

Estimates put the cost of health as the result of climate change at $2 to $4 billion a year by 2030. That is why the report stresses the importance of prevention. “Prevention and preparedness are the heart of public health. Risk management is our daily breadand butter. Information on climate variability and climate change is a powerful scientific tool that assists us in these tasks,” said Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO. “Climate has a profound impact on the lives, and survival, of people. Climate services can have a profound impact on improving these lives, also through better health outcomes.”

Some examples of the links between climate and health that are shown in the report:
  • In some locations the incidence of infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue, meningitis and cholera can vary by factors of more than 100 between seasons, and significantly between years, depending on weather and climate conditions. Stronger climate services in endemic countries can help predict the onset, intensity and duration of epidemics.
  • Case studies illustrate how collaboration between meteorological, emergency and health services is already saving lives. For example, the death toll from cyclones of similar intensity in Bangladesh reduced from around 500,000 in 1970, to 140,000 in 1991, to 3,000 in 2007 – largely thanks to improved early warning systems and preparedness.
  • Heat extremes that would currently be expected to occur only once in 20 years, may occur on average every 2-5 years by the middle of this century. At the same time, the number of older people living in cities (one of the most vulnerable groups to heat stress), will almost quadruple globally, from 380 million in 2010, to 1.4 billion in 2050. Cooperation between health and climate services can trigger measures to better protect people during periods of extreme weather.
  • Shifting to clean household energy sources would both reduce climate change, and save the lives of approximately 680,000 children a year from reduced air pollution. The Atlas also shows how meteorological and health services can collaborate to monitor air pollution and its health impacts.
  • In addition, the unique tool shows how the relationship between health and climate is shaped by other vulnerabilities, such as those created by poverty, environmental degradation, and poor infrastructure, especially for water and sanitation.
The goal of the report is as much about building the connections as it is about raising awareness. "It is our hope that the Atlas of Health and Climate will serve as a visual “call to action” by illustrating not only the scale of challenges already confronting us – and certain to grow more acute – but also by demonstrating how we can work together to apply science and evidence to lessen the adverse impacts of weather and climate and to build more climate-resilient health systems and communities," say Chan and WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud in the preface.

Read the full report here.