Health ‘forgotten’ in climate talks


Doctors and environmentalists believe the impact of climate change on public health has been largely ignored by policymakers as global leaders step up talks ahead of December’s Copenhagen summit.

Health NGOs in Brussels are pushing for greater attention to be paid to the increase in infectious diseases and chronic illnesses that accompany changes to the climate, with campaigners fearful that world’s poorest populations will be worst hit.

“Health has been forgotten in climate talks but it’s not too late to put it on the agenda,” said Anja Leetz, executive director of Health Care Without Harm Europe (HCWH). 

Dr Michael Gill of the Climate Health Council said that 20 years ago, climate issues were the preserve of environmentalists, but the debate has now shifted to a discussions about financing. 

“People think climate change is now all about economics, but health should be the bottom line,” he said. Gill claimed that any policy that is good for the environment is good for health too, and said politicians should link the two issues to help improve public appreciation of why urgent action is needed. 

He said health professionals will come together to highlight climate change just as doctors from the US and Russia had joined forces in the 1980s to protest against nuclear war. 

Dr Michael Wilks, president of the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME), said health professionals can play a key role in convincing the public of the need for action. However, he warned that there is a growing sense that the Copenhagen talks are “losing momentum”. 

Green health groups are urging EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassilliou to put pressure on Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas and the EU’s delegation to the Copenhagen climate summit. 

At a meeting in Brussels yesterday (6 October), HCWH Europe and the Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) presented Vassilliou with a ‘Prescription for a Healthy Planet,’ which calls for better treatment for the ailing climate negotiations. 

Europe battling resurgent infectious diseases 

Experts say infectious diseases which had been virtually eradicated in some European countries will spread quickly thanks to climate disturbances. Malaria is making a comeback, but there are also concerns about rising chronic pulmonary illnesses. 

The strain this will put on healthcare systems is a concern for policymakers who fear a recrudescence of health problems experienced in France when a heatwave overwhelmed hospitals in 2003. 

The wider issue of malnutrition arising from decreased crop yields is also being floated as an argument for a decisive agreement in Copenhagen. 

Dr Wilks said if action is not taken, the average temperature in France in 2050 will be the same as the maximum temperature experienced during the catastrophic heat wave of 2003. 

EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassilliou said climate change will have a major impact on human, animal and plant health and "will be of massive importance to citizens for years to come". 

"Each organisation and every citizen can also contribute substantially to reducing their own climate footprint," said Commissioner Vassilliou, adding that she welcomed the high level of concern amongst health and medical professionals. She pledged to bolster surveillance systems to monitor the spread of communicable diseases. 

Vassilliou said the damage done by the Pinewood Nematode in Portugal and the spread of Blue Tongue to most of Europe are signs that climate change is already having a visible impact. 

Génon Jensen, executive director of the Health and Environmental Alliance  (HEAL),  said: "The arguments about the health impact should be used right now to help achieve a 40% target on carbon reductions compared to 1990 emission levels by 2020 and to counterbalance the debate on how much climate will cost us." 

She called for higher targets on carbon emission reductions which would bring better air quality, less ill health, greater public health protection and healthcare savings.

Anja Leetz, executive director of Health Care Without Harm Europe, said health arguments had not been taken on board by policymakers. "It is disappointing that none of the climate change funding is explicitly directed at health. Experts consider global warming to be potentially the biggest health threat in the 21st century yet the health arguments are not taken on board and acted upon," she said. 

"We are recommending that by 2020 the EU contribute at least 35 billion euros per year to fund global action on climate change. A proportion of this should be allocated to the health sector," Leetz added. 

German centre-right MEP Dr Peter Liebe said flooding, drought and heat waves will put unbearable strain on healthcare systems. Pointing to the example of the heat wave endured by France in 2003, he said politicians will lose their jobs if they fail to prepare adequately. 

He dismissed the suggestion that there is no scientific consensus on human responsibility for climate change, saying 99% of scientists believe urgent action is required. 

Dr Isabella Annesi-Maesano of the European Respiratory Society  (ERS) said there is a great deal of data on the increase in infectious diseases wrought by climate change. "What is less well appreciated is the expected rise in chronic pulmonary conditions," she said. 

Increased pollution heightens the risk of illness in the elderly population and is causing a spike in allergic asthma, Annesi-Maesano added. 

Socialist & Democrat MEP Jo Leinen, chair of the European Parliament's environment committee, said industry lobbyists are fighting to be made exempt from the Emissions Trading Scheme but the parliament is struggling to ensure the list is short. 

"We need to have a long-term vision but that’s no excuse for doing nothing now," he said. 

He said the Parliament will ask the EU executive to prepare an impact assessment of how climate change will affect member states. The new cross-border healthcare directive will also help European countries share best practice in dealing with emerging pressures on health and social systems, according to Leinen. 

Dr Michael Wilks, president of the Standing Committee of European Doctors, said doctors will need to be trained to recognise new communicable diseases which will increase as the ecosystem changes. 

"We know about the primary medical consequences of climate change but we also have to consider the secondary problems like malnutrition arising from crop failures," he said. 

Dr Michael Gill of the Climate Health Council said climate change will affect poor populations disproportionately. “Those already most vulnerable are those who will suffer most and quickest,” he said. 

He said chronic illnesses are already worse in low income countries and that flooding will hit Bangladesh harder than the Netherlands due to the gulf in wealth between rich and poor nations. 

Gill said doctors often speak of a “golden hour” within which sick patients need urgent treatment. “We are coming close to the end of the golden hour – we are hovering on irreversibility here,” he said. 

The health impact of climate change has been well-documented amid serious concerns that changing temperature and rainfall could lead to increases in cholera and diarrhoeal diseases, as well malaria, dengue fever and other infections carried by vectors. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that climate change threatens to "halt or reverse" the progress made by the global public health community in combating infectious disease. 

Floods and droughts could also have a dramatic impact on health, especially for people living in coastal and small island communities. 

The WHO has also released a report highlighting ways the sector can cut its own carbon footprint by making hospitals more energy efficient (EURACTIV 29/5/09). 

  • 19 Oct.: European Parliament's environment and public health committee to vote on amendments to the Parliament's position on climate change. 
  • 7-18 Dec.: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen.

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