Public Health Leaders Stress Climate Risk

Meningitis vaccinesWhen seasonal rains lift from the Mali skies, meningitis often follows. Dust-filled winds can elevate the disease's effects by damaging tissue in a person's nose or throat. If longer droughts become more common, as expected across the Sahel, the epidemic could intensify, researchers say.

Connections between climate change and public health are not unique to West Africa. Worldwide, generations are expected to suffer as a result of historical and future greenhouse gas emissions, and the poor are most at risk.

Last week, a leading medical journal urged society's caretakers to better adapt to a warmer planet, calling climate change "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century."

"We call for a public health movement that frames the threat of climate change for humankind as a health issue," The Lancet said in an editorial on Friday. "Apart from a dedicated few, health professionals have come late to the climate change debate."

Heat waves and the spread of tropical disease are often mentioned as the leading health risks associated with climate change. But it was the indirect effects of water scarcity, shifting food resources, and extreme weather that led The Lancet, in collaboration with the Institute for Global Health at University College London, to sound the alarm. These threats now cause an estimated 150,000 deaths each year in low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The editorial is a significant statement for the public health community. With few comprehensive assessments of the effects of climate change on health, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, researchers often disagree about the extent that human-caused climate change affects health, said Susan Polan, the associate executive director of the American Public Health Association.

In addition to a renewed public health advocacy movement, The Lancet recommended that global leaders expedite development efforts in the poorest countries. The advice echoes the suggestions of an independent report on adaptation released by a Stockholm-based commission at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development last week.

The Commission on Climate Change and Development
, comprised of international development, research, and governmental leaders, urges donor countries to add $1-2 billion to their total spending on foreign aid (a rarely actualized commitment of 0.7 percent of gross national income). The funding should be targeted to vulnerable low-income countries, especially in Africa and small island states, for technical support, institutional coordination, and climate warning systems, the Commission said.

"Money is needed now, and more will be needed in the future to help developing countries adapt," the report stated [PDF]. "If we fail, [the next generation] will be worse and will be more limited. If we succeed, we will have provided them at least a better chance."

The funds requested by the commission match what developed countries already promised for least-developed countries in 2001. The voluntary agreement, however, has so far attracted less than $200 million, none of which is from the United States, which did not ratify the treaty.

"It's sad to me that the richest country, the biggest [historical] contributor to climate change, has not dedicated one penny to this fund," said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, at an adaptation conference in Washington, D.C., in April.

As public health concerns swirl around the specter of a flu pandemic, Friends of the Earth International Chair Meena Raman said that rising sea levels, displaced communities, and additional climate change effects posed an even larger threat to society's health.

"The pandemic is likely to be a pimple compared to the pandemics worldwide likely to be caused by the diseases of climate change," Raman said. "Those of us who have the capacity should not be asking, ‘Are we ready?' but ‘What should we do?'"

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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