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WHO On Climate Change: "Global Health Is At Risk"

WHO on climate change: "Global health is at risk"

Manila, 7 April 2008 -- The World Health Organization (WHO) warned today that the health of hundreds of millions of people may be put at risk by the effects of global climate change.

Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, said: "Global warming has already impacted lives and health, and this problem will pose an even greater threat to mankind in coming decades if we fail to act now."

WHO calculates that climate change and variability may already be the cause of an increase in the number of deaths - now at more than 150,000 annually - from malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition and injury from floods, with half of those deaths occurring in Asia and the Pacific.

Climate change will be difficult to reverse over the short term, said Dr Omi. The threats range from increased risks of extreme weather events to an expansion in the areas where disease-carrying mosquitoes are active, spreading from the tropics to cooler climates in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Millions of people could face disease, poverty and hunger if Asia's arable lands become unworkable through changes in temperature, rainfall, river flows or pest abundance. At the same time, the health of tens of millions of residents of some of Asia's delta megacities, such as Calcutta and Manila, could be threatened by river and coastal flooding. Other populations considered at risk from rising sea levels and extreme weather are those living in low-lying Pacific islands.

Rising temperatures and increased rainfall will result in mosquitoes being found in abundance in cooler climates, where there is little knowledge of and resistance to the diseases they carry.

This year's World Health Day 2008, on 7 April, aims to raise awareness and public understanding of the consequences of climate change. The theme, "Protecting health from climate change", is designed to put health at the centre of government policies on global warming, while encouraging individuals to take action to limit greenhouse gases.

Dr Omi said no countries would be spared the health consequences of global warming, but the first and hardest hit would be those where health systems are already overburdened by disease, and where undernutrition is widespread and education poor.

Many of the projected impacts on health are avoidable or controllable through well known and tested public health interventions such as immunization, disease surveillance, mosquito control and disaster preparedness, Dr Omi said.

At the same time, there has to be urgent action through changes in lifestyles and attitudes to limit greenhouse gases. If this does not happen, the effects on the global climate system could be abrupt or irreversible, Dr Omi said.

***

Fact Sheet on Climate Change

No country will be spared from the consequences of climate change. But those with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, weak health infrastructure and/or political unrest will be the least able to cope.

Climate change is likely the cause of the increase in the number of global deaths--now at more than 150 000 annually--from malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition and injury from floods.

Because of global warming, malaria-carrying mosquitoes are now found in places where they were never seen before, such as parts of the People's Republic of Korea and the mountains of Papua New Guinea.

Dengue: There is so far no established connection between climate change and the exceptionally high number of dengue cases being seen in Asia. But there seems little doubt that rising temperatures and unseasonally high rainfall have a role.

The health of tens of millions of residents of some of Asia's delta megacities, such as Calcutta and Manila, could be threatened by river and coastal flooding.

Millions of people could face disease, poverty and hunger if arable lands become unworkable through changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, deforestation and an increase in agricultural pests.

Climate change threatens to reverse our progress in fighting diseases of poverty, and to widen the gaps in health terms between the richest and the poorest people

South Pacific island countries are among the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Many of the inhabited atolls are narrow and low lying, bordered by lagoons or the open ocean. They will be exposed to more frequent seasonal cyclones and rising sea levels (flooding), landslides and storm surges. A scarcity of fresh and safe water will result in higher rates of diarrhoeal diseases, typhoid fever, malnutrition, skin diseases, food poisoning and other complications --in addition to injury and drowning.

Water shortage is a serious problem in many small island states, many of which depend heavily on rain water as the source of their water. Rising sea levels have directly impacted the livelihood and health of people.

Consequences of global warming are now occurring

Heatwaves: Deaths in Shanghai increased by three times the normal rate after several days of temperatures above 40° C in the summer of 1998.

A heatwave in Tokyo in the summer of 2004 caused a 3- to 4-fold increase in the number of hospital admissions due to heat-related illness.

Droughts: Australia's worst drought (2007) in 100 years severely reduced production of irrigated crops and reduced some of Australia's rivers to a trickle, forcing many cities and towns to impose drastic water restrictions.

Singapore: Annual temperatures rose by 1.5° C in the 20 years from 1978 to 1998. During this period, the number of mosquito-borne dengue cases increased more than 10-fold from 384 to 5258.

Hong Kong (China): Plagues of biting midges and blackflies occurred, caused by unseasonally warm weather. Blackflies transmit filarial worms, which can cause blindness.

The response

Governments need to put human health at the core of their climate-change policies. This does not mean establishing new and separate structures. What governments need to do is strengthen and reform current systems, with an emphasis on clean water, immunization, disease surveillance, mosquito control and disaster preparedness.

ENDS

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