Top United Nations officials have warned that global warming and its effects, including a rise in air and sea temperatures and extreme weather patterns, endanger not only the planet but also pose a major threat to human health.
In his message marking this year’s World Health Day, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that, in addition to causing more frequent and more severe storms, heat waves, droughts and floods, climate change jeopardizes the quality and availability of water and food, “our fundamental determinants of nutrition and health.”
He stressed the need to “give voice to this often-overlooked reality, ensuring that protecting human health is anchored at the heart of the global climate change agenda.”
The Secretary-General added that it is the world’s poor – who contributed the least to climate change – that will bear the brunt of the human suffering resulting from the crisis.
For example, malnutrition and climate-related infectious diseases will take their heaviest toll on the most vulnerable – small children, the elderly and the infirm. Women living in poverty face particular risk when natural disasters and other global-warming related dangers strike.
Stressing that “climate change is real, it is accelerating and it threatens all of us,” Mr. Ban called for collective action to combat the scourge, for the sake of the planet as well as for those inhabiting it.
“The core concern is succinctly stated: climate change endangers human health,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the UN World Health Organization (WHO). “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.”
She noted that human beings are already exposed to the effects of climate-sensitive diseases, including malnutrition, which causes over 3.5 million deaths per year, diarrhoeal diseases, which kill over 1.8 million, and malaria, which kills almost 1 million.
Recent events such as the European heat wave in 2003, Hurricane Katrina – which struck the United States in 2005 – and cholera epidemics in Bangladesh are just a few examples of what can be expected in the future.
“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,” she stated. “They will further strain health resources which, in many regions, are already under severe stress.”
To address the health effects of climate change, WHO is coordinating and supporting research and assessment on the most effective measures to protect health, particularly for the most vulnerable such as women and children in developing countries.
It is also advising Member States on the necessary changes to their health systems to protect their populations, and will be working closely with them in the years ahead to develop effective means of adapting to a changing climate and reducing its effects on human health.
Also marking the Day, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) highlighted the disproportionate impact climate change could have on women and children.
“Nearly 10 million children under age five die every year of largely preventable diseases,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. “Many of the main global killers of children – including malaria and diarrhoea – are sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall, and could become more common if weather patterns change.”
In addition, women and children tend to be disproportionately affected by hurricanes and flooding, which climate change experts say will increase in intensity and frequency in coming years. The destruction of homes, schools and health centres resulting from natural disasters reduce services available to families.
“The voices of women and children must be heard and their needs assessed as part of the international response to prospective changes to the environment, and they must have access to the knowledge and tools necessary to protect themselves and their communities,” the agency said in a news release.