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Climate change impact on health ‘just beginning’

Stuart Spear02/11/2017 - 11:01

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Over 120m over-65s exposed to heatwaves
Over 120m over-65s exposed to heatwaves

Climate change is not just impacting on health but it is reducing labour productivity, spreading infectious disease and increasing exposure to air pollution according to the most recent comprehensive study.

The findings are revealed in the first report of the Lancet Countdown on Climate Change – a comprehensive annual analysis, tracking progress on climate change across 40 key indicators.

The project is a collaboration between 24 academic institutions and intergovernmental organisations including the World Health Organisation and the World Meteorological Organisation.

The report reveals that global air pollution levels show an 11.2 per cent increase in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) since 1990 with 71 per cent of the 2,971 cities monitored by the WHO exceeding recommended particulate levels.

While some US and Australian cities are achieving cuts in vehicle use the increased number of zero emission vehicles remains modest. Seventy-seven million electric cars are sold annually compared to a global fleet of internal combustion engine vehicles of 1.2 billion.         

When it comes to the consequences of temperature rises between 2000 and 2016 an estimated 125 million adults over 65 were exposed to heatwaves causing health consequences ranging from heat stress, heat stroke, the exacerbation of pre-existing heart failure, increased risk of kidney injury and dehydration.      

Economic losses resulting from climate-related extreme weather events was estimated at £97 billion in 2016. Ninety-nine per cent of losses in low-income countries are uninsured.

The rate of transmission of some mosquito-borne infectious diseases has also increased, with the vectoral capacity for the transmission of dengue fever by the Aedes Agypti mosquito increasing by 9.4 per cent since 1950. The number of cases of dengue fever has nearly doubled every decade.

The number of people with undernutrition in 30 countries in Asia and Africa has increased from 398 to 422 million since 1990. Climate change is expected to have an impact on crop production, with a 1˚C rise in temperatures associated with a six per cent decline in global wheat yields and a 10 per cent decrease in rice grain yields.

Professor Anthony Costello, co-chair of The Lancet Countdown and a director at the World Health Organization says: ‘Climate change is happening and it’s a health issue today for millions worldwide. The outlook is challenging, but we still have an opportunity to turn a looming medical emergency into the most significant advance for public health this century.

‘As we move in the right direction, we hope for a step-change from governments to tackle the cause and impacts of climate change. We need urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The health and economic benefits on offer are huge. The cost of inaction will be counted in preventable loss of life, on a large scale.’

Between 2007 and 2016, there were on average 306 weather-related disasters (mainly floods and storms) per year, representing a 46 per cent increase since 2000. As events worsen over time, the authors warn that current levels of adaptation will quickly become insufficient.

Professor Hugh Montgomery, director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance, University College London, said: ‘We are only just beginning to feel the impacts of climate change. Any small amount of resilience we may take for granted today will be stretched to breaking point sooner than we may imagine.

‘We cannot simply adapt our way out of this, but need to treat both the cause and the symptoms of climate change. There are many ways to do both that make better use of overstretched healthcare budgets and improve lives in the process.’

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, siad: ‘The Lancet Countdown’s report lays bare the impact that climate change is having on our health today. It also shows that tackling climate change directly, unequivocally and immediately improves global health.

‘It’s as simple as that. Most countries did not embrace these opportunities when they developed their climate plans for the Paris Agreement. We must do better. When a doctor tells us we need to take better care of our health we pay attention and it’s important that governments do the same.’


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