UN: Climate Change Puts Human Health at Risk

GENEVA, Switzerland, April 8, 2008 (ENS) – Bringing a rise in air and sea temperatures and extreme weather patterns, global warming endangers not only the planet but also threatens human health, top United Nations officials warned on Monday – World Health Day – which marks the founding of the UN World Health Organization on April 7, 1948.

“The core concern is succinctly stated – climate change endangers human health,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, WHO.

“The warming of the planet will be gradual,” she said, “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, diarrheal diseases, which kill over 1.8 million people a year, and malaria, which kills almost one million people every year.

World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, right, meets with a group of “lady health workers” in Pakistan. (Photo courtesy World Health Organization)

“Although climate change is a global phenomenon, its consequences will not be evenly distributed,” said Dr. Chan. “In short, climate change can affect problems that are already huge, largely concentrated in the developing world, and difficult to control.”

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,” Chan said. “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.

WHO is advising member states on the changes they must make to their health systems to protect their peoples, and will work with them in the future to develop effective means of adapting to a changing climate and reducing its effects on human health.

“Nearly 10 million children under age five die every year of largely preventable diseases,” said Ann Veneman executive director of the UN Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. “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 Ecuador, more than 14,000 people
were displaced by torrential rains
since January which have flooded
nearly half the country.
(Photo courtesy UNICEF)

Women and children tend to be most 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 centers 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,” UNICEF said.

In his World Health Day message, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the world body must ensure that “protecting human health is anchored at the heart of the global climate change agenda.”

It is the world’s poor – who contributed the least to climate change – who will bear the brunt of the human suffering resulting from the crisis, said Ban.

In addition to causing more frequent and more severe storms, heat waves, droughts and floods, Ban pointed out that climate change jeopardizes the quality and availability of water and food, “our fundamental determinants of nutrition and health.”

Stressing that “climate change is real, it is accelerating and it threatens all of us,” Ban called for collective action to combat climate change, for the sake of the planet as well as for the humans who inhabit it.

Some of those who are taking action now were honored Monday in Washington, DC to mark World Health Day. Fundación Selva Negra, the Black Forest Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization founded by the Mexican Rock group Maná, was named a Champion of Health by the Pan American Health Organization during an observance of World Health Day 2008.

Pan American Health Organization
Director Dr. Mirta Roses, second
from left, presents the award to
Selva Negra’s Augusto Chacon
and Mari Carmen Casares.
(Photo courtesy PAHO)

Founded in 1995, the foundation focused initially on reforestation projects in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Since then, its work has included protection of endangered sea turtles, recycling projects, environmental education projects, support for communities affected by natural disasters, and programs to prevent violence and substance abuse among young people.

One the foundation’s newer projects is The Growing Connection, which promotes high-yielding, water-conserving household vegetable gardens aimed at improving the nutrition of women and children, in particular. The project is currently being carried out in 11 countries, including Ghana, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and the United States.

“We learned not long ago that all the environmental work we do will be useless if we do not include the human beings who interact with threatened species and regions,” said Mari Carmen Casares, Fundación Selva Negra’s deputy director. “We know today that the hope for marine turtles on Mexico’s coasts is inevitably linked with the economic and cultural salvation of the communities that surround them.”

“Health and environment are two parts of the same thing: the quality of life of humans and of all the species with which we share this planet, and the viability of Earth, at least as we know it,” said the foundation’s Executive Director Augusto Chacon.

The long-term trend of global warming is continuing, despite the current La Niña weather phenomenon that is bringing relatively cooler temperatures to parts of the Equatorial Pacific region, the UN World Meteorological Organization said Friday.

Worldwide temperatures continue to rise and this year are expected to be above the long-term average, even though the cooling La Niña weather pattern is likely to persist through to the middle of 2008, the world’s weather scientists said in a press statement issued in Geneva.

WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said that while there will always be both cooler and warmer individual years, the overall trend in temperatures is still upwards.

“For detecting climate change,” he said, “you should not look at any particular year, but instead examine the trends over a sufficiently long period of time.”

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