New chapter: further action agreed to fight new and existing environment and health threats

The final day of the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health addressed new environmental threats to health, particularly climate change, and set out the future direction of the environment and health process to address existing and emerging challenges. Member States and partners endorsed a new declaration and commitment to act on environment and health. A European Environment and Health Task Force and a European Environment and Health Ministerial Board will be established to strengthen the process.

Climate change requires immediate action

Many delegates recognized that the WHO European Region is already experiencing the effects of climate change, including detrimental effects on people's health. Professor David Harper of the Department of Health, United Kingdom stated: "Climate change does not have frontiers. We in Europe are not immune. The temperatures experienced during the heat-wave in 2003 are predicted to be the norm by 2050."

The extreme weather events and disasters increasingly experienced in Europe through climate change - such as flooding, drought, heat-waves, coastal erosion and forest fires, and their indirect effects on water and food supplies, were regarded by participants as the greatest threat to public health this century.

Delegates outlined the specific actions needed to adapt to and mitigate the health effects of climate change, including training health professionals to adapt to the changing disease pattern, take account of the needs of vulnerable groups, show leadership in reducing carbon emissions, share good practice and data, and extend research. Some speakers recognized that making commitments on CO2 emissions is not only a constraint, but can drive innovation. They also suggested that complementing environmental research with evidence on the health effects of climate change makes the need for action more compelling in other sectors.

Europe sets the agenda for global health

Dr Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, Deputy Director-General at WHO headquarters, praised the European Region for its sustained focus on environment and health. He stated: "Europe championed a cause when it was not fashionable. Because of you, environment and health now has a position on the global health agenda." He made a plea for this to remain on the agenda, and identified globalization and changing demographics - an ageing population - as threats to the progress made so far.

Agreeing on the Conference Declaration

Country delegations endorsed the Parma Declaration on Environment and Health, and civil society organizations as well as key partners including the European Commission expressed their support for the Declaration, as well as their commitment to support its goals. In adopting the Declaration, governments agreed to implement national programmes to provide equal opportunities to each child by 2020, by ensuring access to safe water and sanitation, opportunities for physical activity and a healthy diet, improved air quality and an environment free of toxic chemicals, as well as vowing to tackle the adverse health impact of climate change and to reduce social and gender inequalities in risk exposure. In addition, they pledged to place health at the centre of socioeconomic development through increased investment in new technologies and green jobs. Further, Member States agreed to take account of the Parma Youth Declaration 2010, developed at the Conference.

The Declaration was signed by Ms Stefania Prestigiacomo, Minister of the Environment, Land and Sea of Italy and Professor Ferruccio Fazio, Minister of Health of Italy, on behalf of all the Member States of the WHO European Region, and Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

The future of the process

"If we want to make an impact on environment and health in the coming decades as we have done until now, we have to develop and embrace new concepts. We also need structures for cross-sectoral, national and international collaboration that will further strengthen the development and implementation of evidence-based policies. And those structures have to be flexible so that they can adapt to future needs as well, taking into account multiple and diverse stakeholders and partners," commented Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab on the future of the process.

Ms Jakab announced that a European Environment and Health Task Force and a European Environment and Health Ministerial Board would be established to further strengthen the environment and health process, and that a Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health would be held in 2016. In September 2010, Member States will gather in Moscow for the sixtieth session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe, WHO's highest decision-making body at the regional level, to endorse the outcomes of this Conference through a resolution.

The WHO Regional Director for Europe closed the Parma Conference by thanking all the participants for their invaluable contributions.