WHO: Adapting to climate change will save millions of lives in South-East Asia

PR 1511

Parliamentarians from South-East Asia gathered at the Regional Parliamentarians Conference warned that climate change will affect the poor and most vulnerable populations in developing countries. Small and marginal farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture, the rural poor, urban slum dwellers, mountain people, the populations of small islands and those living on the seacoast will bear most of the burden of climate change. The Conference was organized by WHO in Thimphu, Bhutan.

“Climate change threatens to increase the disease burden of the poorest populations and undermine progress towards the Millennium Development Goals”, said Dr. Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO’s Regional Director for South-East Asia. “The existing high burden of climate-sensitive health problems such as malnutrition, vector-borne diseases and diarrhoeal diseases, coupled with weak public health systems and limited access to primary health care, make millions of people in South-East Asia more vulnerable. WHO is urging Member States to act now, especially in strengthening the capacity of the health sector”.

Mitigation measures by one sector may have beneficial health effects elsewhere. For instance in India, a national programme offering low-emission stove technology for burning local biomass fuels will not only reduce carbon dioxide emissions but will also avert about one sixth of premature deaths due to acute respiratory tract infections in children younger than 5 years and chronic respiratory and heart disease in adults older than 30 years by 2020. This would be equivalent to elimination of nearly half the country’s entire cancer burden.

Diarrhoea is one of the most common causes of death among children under five years in South-East Asia. Climate change increases the incidence of diarrhoeal diseases. Heavy rains and floods contaminate drinking water sources with human excreta by flooding septic tanks and sewerage systems. Scarcity of water caused by drought, decreased glacial melt water and increased salinity of costal areas due to rising sea levels and storms compromises the quality of drinking water and sanitation. There are reports from the Region of increased incidence of cholera and rota virus diarrhoea associated with higher sea surface temperature and atmospheric temperature, respectively.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in cases of dengue in the Region. Bhutan and Nepal started reporting dengue since 2004 and 2006 respectively. Mosquitoes transmitting dengue previously found up to an elevation of 500 metres above sea level have now been sighted at altitudes of 2200 metres in Darjeeling, India, and 4000 metres in Nepal. Climate change will have mixed effects on malaria incidence. It is likely to decrease in plains having high ambient temperatures throughout the year. However, with an increase in temperature new windows for malaria will open in cooler regions, such as mountains presently free from malaria, and the season of malarial transmission will also expand.

Health problems and injuries caused by extreme weather events like heat waves, hurricanes and floods are obvious. But climate change also has a more subtle and sustained impact on human health by affecting the three basic pillars of life, namely air, water and food. The World Health Report 2002 estimated that about 82 000 persons died due to climate change in South- East Asia in 2000, and among WHO regions, South-East Asia had the highest estimated deaths.

WHO is organizing the Regional Conference of Parliamentarians to increase understanding of the health impacts of climate change and identify future actions.

What: Regional Parliamentarians Conference on Protecting Human Health from Climate Change
When: 5-7 October 2010
Where: Thimphu, Bhutan

For more information contact:

Ms Vismita Gupta-Smith
Public Information and Advocacy Officer
WHO South-East Asian Regional Office (SEARO)
New Delhi
Tel: 91-11-23309401
Mobile: +91 9871329861

Mr Thinley Dorji
Tel: 975-2-322864
E-mail: dorjit@searo.who.int