Climate change rivals Ebola at World Health Summit

Climate change threatens to take an estimated 250,000 lives each year between 2030 and 2050, mainly in developing countries. [Kuster & Wildhaber Photography]

Climate change threatens to take an estimated 250,000 lives each year between 2030 and 2050, mainly in developing countries. [Kuster & Wildhaber Photography]

Climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, affecting the poorest countries with weak health care systems – a global challenge that rivaled Ebola as one of the top issues at the World Health Summit in Berlin this week. EURACTIV Germany reports.

“The poorest countries, with weak health care systems, are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” said Thomas Silberhorn, speaking at the World Health Summit in Berlin on Monday (20 October).

Alongside the Ebola crisis, climate change was one of the main topics on the agenda at the event.

“Natural disasters will take more lives than ever. Diseases like malaria and dengue will spread further because the mosquitoes that transmit them thrive in higher temperatures. And cases of diarrhea will increase if droughts and flooding bring on more shortages in clean drinking water,” Silberhorn explained on Monday (20 October).

>> Read: Funding for ‘neglected’ tropical diseases goes from ‘rags to riches’

The international community is still far from realising its target of only allowing global warming to rise a maximum of 2% above pre-Industrialisation levels.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the largest emissions increase of the past 30 years took place between 2000 to 2010. If countries continue as they have so far, global warming will increase 3.7 to 4.8 degrees by 2100, the IPCC estimated.

>> Read: IPCC report: Climate change a threat to security, food and humankind

In order to reach the two-degree target, countries must move quickly and resolutely, said Silberhorn. In the fight against global warming, he stated, the UN Climate Conference in Paris at the end of 2015 is a decisive milestone.

The BMZ official made it clear that every effort must be made to adjust to climate change. A two-degree rise in temperature will have immense effects, also on health care, Silberhorn emphasised.

While Ebola can be controlled, the effects of climate change on health are irreversible, said Heidelberg-based medical researcher Dr. Rainer Sauerborn. What is needed, is a functioning health care system, he pointed out.

However, Sauerborn did indicate one parallel to Ebola: “Nobody accepts the unglamorous task of financing health care systems that could both protect populations from Ebola and protect them from the health effects of climate change.”

From a global perspective, the disparity between health schemes is significant, explained Kathryn Bowen, a researcher at the University of Melbourne. Developing countries have the highest mortality rate among children under five years old, she said.

Health care access for all

Adaptive capacity is a central issue that must be supported, among developing countries in particular. This capability helps them appropriately react to the negative health effects of climate change, Bowen explained.

Effective adaptation is characterised by investments that strengthen health services, she indicated. According to the Australian researcher, health workers should be adequately trained, and health professionals should be positioned within federal ministries to advise policy.

Meanwhile, access to financial contributions remains a significant problem, Bowen said. The health community should be given better access to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, she indicated as an example.

Cambodia and Fiji are two countries that have succeeded in getting health-related aspects of climate change on the agenda, Bowen indicated.

In Cambodia the “National Climate Change Committee” was founded, with the country’s prime minister named chairman and the “Climate Change Office” awarded its own department. In the eyes of stakeholders, these were elementary structural changes, she said.

In Fiji, the issue of climate change has found a permanent place in the country’s foreign ministry, something Bowen said many people see as benefiting their work.

Silberhorn described concrete examples of support through the German government: Since 2013, Germany has been working on a joint pilot project with the World Health Organisation (WHO), supporting countries in Africa and Asia in creating national analysis and adaptation strategies, he indicated.

“We want all people in the world to have access to comprehensive, qualitatively proportionate and affordable health care. To achieve this, we contribute €750 million per year – three times more than ten years ago,” the Development Ministry official said.

“With regard to support for health care systems in our partner countries, we should aim at addressing new challenges brought on by climate change,” he pointed out.

Germany is already the world’s second-largest donor in climate financing, and has seen a four-fold increase in its public contributions over the last ten years, to a current rate of around €1.8 billion.

The Ebola epidemic, the worst since the disease was discovered in 1976, has killed more than 4,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria and has also spread to Senegal.

Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever spread through the blood, sweat or vomit of those infected, making those working directly with the sick among the most vulnerable to the disease.

The WHO believes it will take six to nine months to contain and may infect up to 20,000 people.

14 of Liberia's 15 counties have reported confirmed cases. As soon as a new Ebola treatment centre is opened, it is immediately swamped with patients.

Liberia's government announced it was extending a nationwide nighttime curfew imposed last month to curb the spread of the disease.

There is not yet any macroeconomic analysis of Ebola's impact on West Africa, with IMF figures only indicating a modest decrease in growth for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. But NGOs on the ground describe the situation as “catastrophic”.

>> Read: Economic impact of Ebola shrouded in mystery

The first case of infection with the Ebola virus in Europe took place in Spain.

>> Read: Commission summons Spain over Ebola case mishandling

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