WHO agrees plan to speed up research on risk to human health from climate change

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 14 October 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2081
  1. John Zarocostas
  1. 1Geneva

    The World Health Organization has agreed to a plan to speed up research to help governments formulate policies to counter the risks posed by climate change to human health.

    At present scientific research papers about the links between climate change and health are outnumbered by papers about air pollution by almost eight times, the agency said, at the end of a meeting in Madrid attended by more than 80 leading experts on climate change and health.

    “Member states asked WHO to help them strengthen the evidence base for policy action. This plan provides the framework for doing that. It sets out guidance for governments, research institutions, and donors looking to fill crucial knowledge gaps,” said Margaret Chan, WHO’s director general.

    Maria Neira, the WHO director for public health and environment, told reporters that the agency would like the research plan “to create a global platform and make sure that we rapidly strengthen evidence on the health implications of climate change and particularly the most effective and protective measures.”

    The research framework, agreed in Madrid, has identified five priority areas. They include:

    • To consider how climate change will interact with other health determinants and trends, such as economic development, globalisation, urbanisation, and inequities in exposure and access to health

    • To strengthen public health systems to tackle the health effects of climate change and identify the best means of implementing integrated public health strategies that reduce threats from climate change and all environmental health risks

    • To probe the direct and indirect effects of climate change on health, with a special emphasis on long term changes, such as drought, decline in water resources, and population movements, with a special emphasis placed on children and other vulnerable groups

    • To compare the effectiveness of short term interventions because different nations have taken a range of policy responses to deal with health threats linked to climate change, such as heat waves and floods

    • To get health ministers worldwide to ensure the defined agenda will provide the best guidance for implementation at the country level.

    • Dr Neira said that the type of policy recommendations provided to countries “will be able to help them to reinforce their public health infrastructure at country level . . . such as reinforcing their epidemiological surveillance capacity in order to better protect and anticipate potential increases in certain infectious diseases aggravated by climate change.”

    Systems need to be put in place, she said, to better respond to those epidemics and natural disasters caused by climate change that will cause damage to people’s health.

    Tony McMichael, of the Australian National University, who chaired the Madrid conference, said that immediate and longer term serious risks to health will arise as a result of adverse effects, such as dryer conditions, which will adversely affect food production, aggravating problems of malnutrition and child development.

    Many infectious diseases are also sensitive to climatic conditions, he noted.

    “Many of the tiny species, like mosquitoes and ticks that spread infectious diseases like Dengue fever, malaria, West Nile fever, and dozens of others, are very sensitive to temperature, to rainfall, to humidity, and we know many of those will change their pattern of occurrence.”

    There will also be adverse effects on mental health, he said, through weather events and disasters, loss of jobs, displacement of coastal populations as sea levels rise, and uprooting of populations in other vulnerable areas.

    “Some of these are already occurring and others we anticipate will increasingly appear in the coming several decades,” he said.

    On Friday the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned environmental destruction by climate change could result in “a dramatic” humanitarian challenge in how to help “millions of people uprooted. Humanitarian needs must not be forgotten,” he said.

    Professor McMichael said that to date most of the research in the past decade has been in richer countries, even though the risks from climate change to health will be greater in poorer nations, particularly those in geographically vulnerable regions of the world.

    “So we need to redress this imbalance and fill the gaps in knowledge.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2081

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