Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Climate Change the biggest threat to global health

Published:Wednesday | June 8, 2016 | 6:00 AMAnastasia Cunningham
Dr Hannah Nissan from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), based in New York, United States
Sally Edwards, adviser on sustainable development and environmental health at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)
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ROSEAU, Dominica:

Climate change has a significant impact on a number of sectors - tourism, agriculture, energy, water, food security, transportation, infrastructure and very importantly, health.

However, it is believed that although the impact of climate change on health is one of the biggest threats to society, it is the least understood, a grave error that experts believe must be addressed with immediate urgency.

Climate change is defined as, "a change in global or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the mid to late 20th Century onwards, and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels".

According to international health authorities Lancet, "Climate change could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century. Effects on health of climate change will be felt by most populations in the next decades and put the lives and well-being of billions of people at increased risk. During this century, the Earth's average surface temperature rises are likely to exceed the safe threshold of 2oC above pre-industrial average temperature."

Authorities around the world are now seeking to drive home the magnitude of the situation and mobilise countries into action to mitigate the impact.

This was the focus of this year's staging of the Caribbean Regional Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF), hosted at the Fort Young Hotel in Roseau, Dominica from May 30-31, where Caribbean meteorologists and international climate researchers held discussions with stakeholders in climate-sensitive sectors.

The theme of the conference was to examine the impact of climate change on the health of the Caribbean region and how to integrate climate change information into the health sector's decision-making process.

Now in its fifth year and eighth staging, this is the first time that the health sector is being engaged by CariCOF, particularly because of the forecast for an active hurricane season, which is expected to bring increased rainfall, which will lead to more mosquito-breeding sites. The nations are now aggressively fighting to control vector-borne diseases such as Zika virus, chikungunya, yellow fever and dengue fever.

Among the main concerns addressed by CariCOF on the global health impacts from climate change were heat stress, reduced labour productivity, increased under-nutrition, mental health issues, air pollution, an overburdened health system, scarcity of clean water and food, as well as an increase in food-borne, water-borne and vector-borne diseases.

 

CAN THE CARIBBEAN TAKE THE HEAT?

 

"Climate change is one of the biggest threats to human health. However, I think it is one of the least understood because people tend to look at it as having indirect effects. But there are lots of different avenues on how climate change impacts health - both directly and indirectly," Dr Hannah Nissan from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), based in New York, United States, shared with The Gleaner.

"And that impact is not just on the human body, but also on infrastructures and health systems, and how the burden of health care might change in the future, and the health system's capability to help people."

Listing heat stress as one of the direct impacts, she said data is showing that global warning is causing temperatures to become increasingly hotter and for longer periods across the globe.

"There is a significant amount of deaths from heat stress around the world each year. People are literally dying, even when the temperatures are not that hot," said the climatologist.

"One of the things we need to look at is the current heat risk within the Caribbean. We are already seeing examples in lots of places where the temperature is getting much hotter. In the Caribbean, the need has to be thinking ahead to see what is going to be the case when it does start getting hotter."

Nissan continued, "We know that in the Caribbean the temperatures are fairly consistent, but at the same time, you are not used to much temperature variations, so maybe all it will need is just a little bit in variation. What will happen if it gets just a little bit above normal? What it really boils down to is how adaptive you are going to be to the change in the climate environment. It is also very important that we create early warning systems. In fact, several countries have already begun to create heat-response protocols."

Another direct impact she stated was on mosquito-breeding sites with the rainfall changes, as well as transmission of virus because of the various changes in temperatures.

Examining the indirect impacts, she pointed to the displacement of persons due to natural disasters, "and this does impact people's health because they are cut off from access to basic health services and needs such as clean water, food, and so on, and this also affects not just their physical health, but their mental health as well."

She added, "Really if you look at it, there is no sector that is not impacted. However, the impact of climate change on the health sector is one of the least explored and biggest areas of concern."

 

EXACERBATED CHALLENGES

 

Sally Edwards, adviser on sustainable development and environmental health at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), shared similar views, noting that "one of the most important aspects to comprehend is that it is going to exacerbate some of the challenges we are already facing today".

Edwards told The Gleaner, "A lot of the impact isn't necessarily the introduction of diseases. Of course, we will see the introduction of new diseases, some which is related to climate change, some of which is related to globalisation - and we are seeing examples of that. But a lot of the impact will be the worsening of the conditions we already have."

The PAHO adviser said not only does the health sector need to take a serious look at the impact of climate change, "but we need to understand that impact and broaden our focus on health to understand that our environment affects us - not just climate change, but climate variability. And we need to identify the vulnerable groups that are most affected."

Nissan expressed that one of the biggest mistakes was the health sector not having an equal place at the table in the preparation phase for natural disasters, "and I think that is because the effects are less well understood, and maybe because there is not much of a recognition within the health sector and awareness of the potential extent of the risk. But the health sector must be part of the conversation and discussions and plans from the beginning."

She said the job of climate scientists is to deliver information that is going to be helpful, however, there needs to be a two-way process.

"What we need to do is work together to come up with an overlap between what they would like to know and what we can actually predict, so we really need the voice from the health sector to be sitting at the table from the get-go to voice the demand about the type of information that they need in order to be able to adapt to those changes," she said.

"If you take an example from disaster risk management, even from a financial standpoint, you see the importance of preparing and taking action before a disaster hits, not responding afterwards."

 

VULNERABILITY AND ADAPTATION ASSESSMENT

 

Edwards said in 2007, PAHO developed a strategic plan of action on climate change that was signed on to by all of the countries of the Americas and the Caribbean. Part of that plan of action was that all the countries would do a vulnerability and adaptation assessment. In 2010, a guideline to carry out that assessment was developed by PAHO.

At the CariCOF conference, Dominica was the first country to present its completed study titled Assessment of Climate Change and Health Vulnerability and Adaptation in Dominica.

The findings stated that: "Health risks from climate change related to vector-borne, water-borne and food-borne diseases are growing and concerns exist over possible impacts to food security. The study found that warming is expected to lead to increased health risks from dengue fever, chikungunya, malaria, gastroenteritis and leptospirosis in addition to impacts on society from more severe extreme weather events such as hurricanes."

Among the recommendations, the paper stated that: "Dominica can increase its resilience to the health impacts of climate change by taking adaptation actions that lessen future impacts, take advantage of opportunities and manage the consequences of growing risks from climate hazards."

Last year, Tropical Storm Erika significantly damaged Dominica and posed a great public health threat in its aftermath. The nature island suffered damages amounting to EC$1.2 billion in major infrastructural losses, multiple injuries and deaths.

The PAHO adviser urged other countries to also do their own vulnerability and adaptation assessments and develop their national plan of action along the lines of the regional plan of action, as well as look at implementing policies to have an inclusive cross-sector vision of climate variability and change. Each country needs to develop a national adaptation plan for health, she said.

"It is only by really understanding who the vulnerable groups are and what the vulnerabilities really are would we be able to put things in place to adapt or mitigate some of the changes that occur," stated Edwards.

Officially named the 2016 Wet/Hurricane Season Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF), the conference was organised by the regional climate services provider, the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH) in collaboration with the Dominica Meteorological Service. The development partners included United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Environment Canada, The World Meteorological Organization (WIMO), the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), and the University of Arizona, United States.

anastasia.cunningham@gleanerjm.com