A new global agreement to combat climate change, due to be reached in December in Paris, is more important for everyone’s health than many people realise, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Tuesday.
Apart from the direct impact, disasters like heatwaves and floods increase the risk of infectious diseases spreading, while air pollution in cities causes diseases such as lung cancer and strokes, said Maria Neira, the head of public health at WHO.
The WHO estimates that 7 million people a year die as a result of air pollution, which is made worse by rising temperatures, especially in cities.
“Human health is connected to (the effects of climate change) to a level that people might not understand correctly,” Neira told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Geneva.
“If the countries agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions … all of those interventions to tackle the causes of climate change will result in benefits for our health.”
Tackling the causes of climate change offers a path to healthier lives by reducing the spread of diseases and limiting the risk of disasters, which can destroy people’s access to food, water and shelter, Neira said.
The WHO sees climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.
“We are all at risk. Even in rich countries the risk will be heatwaves and polluted air,” said Neira.
Health experts warned in June that the threat to human health from climate change is so great that it could undermine the last 50 years of gains in development and global health.
Countries that cannot adapt to climate change or do not have effective healthcare systems are likely to suffer most if there is no deal on climate change, Neira said.
“The most vulnerable, the poorest of the poorest are the ones that will be most affected because they don’t have systems to cope with these increased risks.”
In sub-Saharan Africa health clinics are already stretched to the limit treating diarrhoea, malaria and dengue fever, so an increase in the number of infections would make an already difficult situation worse, Neira said.
“The ironic part of this is that sub-Saharan countries are contributing very little to global warming, however they will be most affected by it because their health systems are less equipped and they have less technology and less resource.”
WHO has launched a website and hopes to gather 5,000 signatures in support of a climate change agreement that promotes health. http://who.int/globalchange/global-campaign/cop21/en/