LONDON (AlertNet) - Malnutrition is likely to be the most serious health threat linked to climate shifts in the coming decades, as farmers struggle to cope with more unpredictable weather, a top health expert has said.
Linkages between climate change, extreme weather and health have so far focused mainly on an expected increase in deaths from disasters and heat waves, as well as rising cases of malaria, dengue fever and diarrhoea.
“No one will ever die with a death certificate saying they died of climate change,” so assessing the number of climate-linked deaths will be difficult, epidemiologist Kris Ebi warned during a recent World Health Organization (WHO) briefing on adapting health systems to climate shifts.
But malnutrition is already an underlying cause of about half of 9 million annual child deaths. And with 85 percent of the health impacts of climate change estimated to hit children, they will be “highly vulnerable”, said Ebi, a lead author of the human health section of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report.
One major problem is that those likely to face the biggest health challenges from climate change also have the fewest resources to prepare, warned Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC.
“Where people are poor and don’t have the infrastructure by which they might be protected from increased heat waves or extreme weather events … we have to look at special measures for how we can protect life and property in those communities,” he urged.
In addition, preparedness efforts need to be integrated with development plans, or “the effectiveness of the actions we take will remain limited”, he said.
The two areas of the world likely to suffer the greatest health risks linked with climate change are sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, IPCC studies suggest. Both are already grappling with malnutrition, in particular, and could see agriculture suffer from climate extremes, health experts say.
But governments and health services in these regions are not the only ones who need to act. “Every country is going to be affected,” Ebi said. “There is no country that is not going to see some health impacts from climate change.”
‘HEAVY’ EPIDEMICS AHEAD?
Solomon Nzioka, a doctor in the WHO’s Kenya office, cited last year’s drought in East Africa, which led to tens of thousands of deaths in southern Somalia before aid arrived, as an example of the health and malnutrition challenges ahead.
Kenya’s health service also is struggling to cope with new disease challenges, such as dengue fever, he said.
After this year’s long rains, from March to May, doctors saw a rise in what they thought were malaria cases. But the initial diagnoses proved wrong, and blood tests showed the outbreak was dengue, a surprise for health workers, Nzioka said.
“It’s for us to develop strong models (to improve) our ability to predict” outbreaks, he said. Emerging problems suggest “we are likely to go back to those times when there used to be heavy epidemics,” he warned.
Jyotishma Rajan Naicker, who helps coordinate a climate health project in Fiji organised by the health ministry, the WHO, the U.N. Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), emphasised that the time for pilot programmes on climate-health impacts is over.
“Countries generally are not open to more assessments. The evidence is already there. What we need now is to act,” she said.
LITTLE FUNDING FOR HEALTH PROJECTS
One obstacle is lack of funding, the experts said. The GEF, which has approved $162 million in climate adaptation and technology transfer projects for least developed countries, has spent only 0.8 percent of that money on health projects, said Rawleston Moore, a senior GEF climate change specialist.
The problem is that affected countries have given higher priority to funding projects on food and agriculture, early warning systems, water resources and coastal management. “We have scope to do more projects in the health sector but so far we haven’t received that many project (requests),” he said.
Health projects supported by the GEF and its partners include a $2 million effort in Samoa to identify hotspots of climate-related disease and equip national health laboratories with diagnostic kits to detect dengue outbreaks, he said.
Ghana, similarly, has received $1.8 million to improve coordination across government and boost the capacity of health services to deal with climate-linked health problems such as malaria, diarrhoea and meningitis, Moore said.
Changing weather conditions could bring relief from some health threats in places, according to the experts. Cold-related deaths, for instance, are likely to fall, and areas that become particularly hot and dry will likely have lower rates of malaria. But those same areas may also experience declines in food production, raising the risk of malnutrition, Ebi warned.
Managing climate-related health risks will be “not a problem to be solved but a process to manage” over the long term, she said. For now, “the most important thing is to get started,” she stressed.