Protecting health from climate change

WHO experts call for health systems to play a greater role

Copenhagen, 4 April 2008

Directly and indirectly, climate change profoundly affects health, leading to a substantial burden on health systems. No country will be spared. Over 1000 extreme weather events hit the WHO European Region in the last three decades. Climate change increases the frequency and severity of these events. According to the latest projections, the future effects of heat-waves, floods and droughts, worsening air pollution and changes in vectors and plant distribution are likely to harm the health of millions of people, if global warming is unconstrained.

A number of factors will determine how much people’s health will be affected. Geography, health-system preparedness, health status, age, social class and support systems affect people’s vulnerability. The rural poor, people who are very young, elderly and/or infirm, and workers exposed to extreme weather events will be most at risk. Climate change can significantly worsen health inequities and put additional stress on poorer groups.

Health systems can play a pivotal role in protecting health from climate change. While climate change has largely been framed in terms of environmental and economic concerns, experts are calling for a greater role for health systems in dealing with its immediate and future health consequences.

Recognizing this, in celebrating World Health Day on 7 April, WHO will urge countries to give their health systems an important, new and proactive role in protecting health from the adverse effects of climate change. “Climate change puts our health at risk and, if current trends continue, future generations will have to bear the consequences,” says Dr Marc Danzon, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Through stronger health systems, the global community will be better prepared to cope with climate-related health challenges.”

Health systems’ role in protecting health from climate change

Climate-related health effects put additional pressure on health systems, which will require substantial strengthening to address the extra burden of disease. While their capacity varies greatly across the Region, all systems can take a number of common actions to reinforce the response: put health concerns high on the climate-change agenda, implement strategies to limit health effects, advocate action by other sectors that will benefit health and lead by example.

Many of the projected health effects can be controlled through well-known health-system interventions, including disease surveillance, disaster preparedness and primary health care. Health professionals are at the front line in protecting health from climate change; they should receive appropriate training and skill development, so that they are prepared to cope with, for example, new patterns of infectious diseases, and the symptoms and treatments of heat-related diseases. The provision of accurate and timely information would help decision-makers and citizens to take proper action.

Health systems are best placed to act as advocates with sectors where reducing emissions can lead to co-benefits for health. For example, promoting a shift towards walking and cycling as means of transport can lower emissions of carbon, air pollutants and noise, while providing immediate opportunities to increase physical activity and reduce traffic-related injuries. Finally, health systems can set an example by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from their activities and facilities.

“There are numerous good examples throughout the Region of health systems helping to tackle climate-related health problems. This year, World Health Day provides an opportunity to share best practices and to place these important issues at the heart of local, national and international dialogue, policies and actions,” concludes Dr Nata Menabde, Deputy Regional Director, WHO Regional Office for Europe. “While there is no doubt of the reality of climate change, health systems can do a lot to reduce the magnitude of its health consequences.”

World Health Day 2008 in the WHO European Region

On World Health Day, the WHO Regional Office for Europe will release a new publication to draw decision-makers’ attention to convincing evidence of climate-related health threats and why and how they should be urgently addressed. Protecting health in Europe from climate change describes current and projected health effects and the challenges they present to health systems in the European Region. It provides practical guidance on action by individuals and countries.

In addition, high-level events will take place in many countries in the WHO European Region on 7 April. These include a policy briefing on protecting health from climate change, given by the Regional Office in collaboration with the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, in Brussels, Belgium, and a special session on World Health Day at the Council of Federation of the Russian Federation. These and other events will help maximize public awareness of and action to protect health from the adverse effects of climate change.

For more information, contact:

Technical information:
Bettina Menne
Medical Officer, Global Change and Health,
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Via Francesco Crispi 10, I-00187 Rome, Italy
Tel.: +39 06 4877546. Fax: +39 06 4877599

Press information:
Cristiana Salvi
Technical Officer, Communication and Advocacy
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Via Francesco Crispi 10, I-00187 Rome, Italy
Tel.: +39 06 4877543, mobile: +39 348 0192305
Fax: +39 06 4877599.

Ms Liuba Negru
Press and Media Relations Officer
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Scherfigsvej 8, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
Tel.: +45 39 17 13 44. Fax: +45 39 17 18 80