Climate Change Human Health Research Fast-Tracked for 2009

MADRID, Spain, October 9, 2008 – World health experts will document the human health effects of climate change under a new high priority research agenda agreed Wednesday at the end of a three-day meeting here convened by the World Health Organization and hosted by Spain’s Ministry of Health.

“This meeting has made clear that there is a need to enhance our evidence base on ways to protect health from climate change,” said Dr. Bernat Soria, Spain’s minister of health and consumption. “We welcome this plan which sets out a clear research agenda and addresses all countries’ needs for evidence-based policy making.”

The plan is intended to speed up, focus and intensify climate change and health research to strengthen the evidence base for discussion at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, where world leaders will forge a new global climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

The small Pacific island state of Tuvalu
will soon be covered by rising seas.
(Photo ©Juriaan Booij)

Developed by WHO with more than 80 researchers on climate change and health, representatives of donors and other UN agencies, the plan builds on a comprehensive review of what is already known about health risks from climate change.

“Many agencies, including WHO, have highlighted the health dangers of climate change,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general. “Our 193 member states asked WHO to help them strengthen the evidence base for policy action. This plan provides the framework for doing just that.”

“It sets out guidance to governments, research institutions and donors looking to fill crucial knowledge gaps,” she said.

In the last decade, even though climate change has been increasingly acknowledged as an important risk to human well-being, its effects on health have received little research attention.

Scientific papers describing the links between climate change and health are outnumbered by those on air pollution by almost eight times, and by those on smoking by almost 40 times.

The WHO research plan identifies five priority research areas starting with interactions between the planet’s rising temperature and other health determinants and trends.

Climate change does not act in a vacuum. Participants at the meeting said there is an urgent need for a better understanding of how climate change will interact with other important health determinants and trends, such as economic development, globalization, urbanization, and inequities in exposure to health risks and access to care.

The 2008 drought in southern Ethiopia
has left Tiya Okutu and her husband
struggling to provide for their children.
(Photo courtesy Trocaire)

The impacts of climate on human health will not be evenly distributed around the world. Developing country residents, particularly in small island states, arid and high mountain zones, and in densely populated coastal areas, are considered to be particularly vulnerable.

Much is known of short-term health impacts of climate change, but there is a need for better characterization of the effects of long-term changes.

These can be intensely stressful situations such as increasing drought, decline in freshwater resources, and population displacement. Health effects can range from mental and emotional disturbances to the physical risks of conflict, and they will be studied with a particular focus on children and other vulnerable groups.

Different countries have taken a variety of approaches to deal with climate change-related health threats such as heatwaves and floods. The researchers will conduct comparative outcome assessments to help rank the effectiveness of these interventions.

Participants at the Madrid meeting agreed on the urgent need for rapid assessment of the health implications of specific climate change prevention and adaptation policies in sectors other than health.

These include the potentially negative effect of biofuels production on food security and malnutrition and the potentially positive health effects of sustainable energy and transport policies.

Finally, researchers will investigate ways of strengthening public health systems to address the health effects of climate change.

Most health system interventions to deal with climate change build on basic public health competencies, but WHO says more knowledge is needed to identify the best ways to implement integrated preventive public health strategies that reduce not just climate change related threats but all environmental health risks.

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