WHO Conference on Climate Change and Health

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In July, I had the privilege of participating in the second World Health Organization (WHO) Conference on Climate Change and Health.  The conference brought together government officials, ministers of health and environment, technical experts, NGO representatives, civil society, and even the Queen of Spain to discuss priorities and actions on behalf of the health community to respond to climate change.

The many health impacts of climate change were identified including intense heat waves, extreme weather events, vector-borne diseases, contaminated water, forced displacement, the increased risk of violent conflict from resource scarcity, and exacerbation of poverty.  It was acknowledged that the most vulnerable are paying the human cost of our energy consumption.

Forest Fire in British Columbia, 2015

Several people reported on the climate health impacts being experienced in their countries.  For example, Dr. Mario Baquilod of the Philippines reported that they experienced record breaking temperatures of 52 degrees C in the Philippines this year.  He indicated that they had over 20,000 cases of diarrhea and 19 deaths this year due to contaminated water supplies and that rates of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever have increased.  He also noted that more than 2,000 health facilities were destroyed in Typhoon Haiyan which hit the Philippines in 2013.

A few speakers identified the many health co-benefits that can be realized by taking action on climate change.  For example, WHO Climate Health Lead, Dr. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, reported that the burning of fossil fuels for transport and energy production contributes to nearly 7 million air pollution-related deaths each year.  He noted, for example, that by promoting the transition from cars to healthy public transport and cycling to reduce greenhouse gases, we can also produce health benefits by improving air quality, reducing road traffic injuries, and fostering physical activity.

Commuters on bicycle in the city.

Some described the innovative steps that are being taken in some jurisdiction to mitigate or adapt to climate change. For instance, in West Africa, they are creating cereal banks to address the cyclical food crises from droughts.  In Rwanda, a project called DelAgua has distributed over 60,000 advanced water filters and clean cook stoves.

Others spoke about the need to build climate resilience into health care systems, particularly in low income nations.  They identified the need for more health education and technology transfer to low income nations to help predict climate health risks, triage financial resources, and invest in key resilience strategies such as early warning systems.

There were discussions about the need to educate the public and decision-makers about the impact that climate change is having on human health, to reframe it as a social justice issue, and to identify it as an inter-generational issue.  Dr.Nick Watts, head of the Lancet Commission on Climate Health, reported that he is creating indicators that can be used to monitor the impacts of climate change on human health. The goal is to create a social license that can be used to clearly advocate for health and climate issues.

There was a sense of urgency at the closing of the conference. There was a feeling that we have limited time to change the trajectory of our economic systems. But there was also a feeling of optimism and positivity.  Many agreed that we have an opportunity to reframe and mobilize political and social will on what could be the greatest health opportunity of our time.

Guest Blog:  Kelly Lau, Medical Student at McGill University, and CAPE Member

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