Climate change is a fundamental threat to human health

PR 1513

Health experts from the 11 Member States of WHO’s South-East Asia Region came together in Dhaka today in advance of the 16th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-16) to collectively voice their concern and to encourage parties to include health issues in any new agreement regarding climate change. COP-16 will be held in Cancun, Mexico, 29 November–10 December 2010. The experts meeting in Bangladesh urged that the serious health effects of climate change be weighed in decision-making, resource allocation and outreach activities, and supported mitigation policies that have protective benefits for human health.

“Strengthening control of diseases of poverty is essential to protect the most vulnerable populations”, said Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO Regional Director for South East Asia. “Countries must invest in adaptation measures for climate change. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is an opportunity to reduce climate change and to improve public health. Health protection should therefore be one of the criteria by which mitigation measures are judged”.

Nearly all adverse environmental and social effects of climate change will ultimately threaten human health. In WHO’s South-East Asia Region, Bangladesh is most vulnerable to extreme weather events, which are now being exacerbated by climate change. Bangladesh also provides a good example of a successful adaptation programme to cope with natural disasters. An improved coastal warning system and evacuation mechanisms have led to a significant reduction in casualties from severe cyclones. Cyclone SIDR in 2007 was the most severe among named cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. But because of adaptation measures, the cyclone resulted in many fewer deaths compared to equally or less severe cyclones in 1970 and 1991. Bangladesh has also been a pioneer in scientific studies aimed at understanding the relationship between diarrhoeal diseases and climate change.

Climate change will impact all countries of the Region. Existing health inequalities are an immense obstacle to the health sector in adequately responding to newer challenges. Energy policies need to be guided by assessment of the impact on vulnerable groups. Carbon emissions must be reduced to avoid the worst outcome of the climate change. Developing economies need rapid economic development so that no country, community or individual is too poor to adapt to climate change. The principle of “contraction and convergence”, conceived by the Global Commons Institute, UK, considers the need to pursue both these actions—reducing global carbon emissions and ensuring economic development of underdeveloped countries simultaneously. It says that industrialized countries would need to dramatically reduce their emissions while the developing countries should be allowed to increase theirs to enable development and poverty reduction.

The health sector needs to engage with other sectors in planning responses to a foreseeable crisis arising from climate change, whose effects could be reduced through intersectoral planning in relation to urban design, transport systems, food production and marketing. WHO is urging countries to send positive messages about the health gains from well-judged mitigation policies. For example, reduced greenhouse gas emissions will result in cleaner air for breathing; individual transport policies encouraging the use of public transport (with due consideration of pedestrian safety) will reduce road accidents and bring well-known health benefits from physical exercise. These health co-benefits will offset at least some of the costs of climate change mitigation, and should be taken into account in international negotiations.

What: Regional High Level Preparatory Meeting for the 16th UNFCCC
Conference of Parties (COP16)
When: 19 – 21 October 2010
Where: Dhaka, Bangladesh

For more information contact:

Ms Vismita Gupta-Smith
Public Information and Advocacy Officer
Tel: + 91-11-23309401
E-mail: guptasmithv@searo.who.int

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