Interview: Climate change will exacerbate health problems

«We have to change the way we live, the way we move, how we spend our money. This is a profound transformation and the majority of changes are yet to come.»

As the health effects of climate change are already being observed, the EU should quickly boost its response capacity by improving early warning and surveillance of infectious diseases and establishing a sound communication system with the population, argues the World Health Organisation’s Dr. Nata Menabde in an interview with EURACTIV. 

“A number of health conditions will be exacerbated through climate change,” said Menabde, the WHO deputy regional director for Europe. 

In the EU, the most significant effect will an increase in diseases related to air pollution, such as respiratory and allergic diseases, especially in children. Elderly people with cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders will also be particularly vulnerable to climate change as they are explicitly vulnerable to rising temperatures.

Furthermore, outbreaks of infectious diseases will result from heat waves, for example. “An example of this could be increased incidence of salmonella because microbes grow faster when it is warm and contaminate food. If there is not a sufficiently vigilant system of food safety, it may actually reach the people,” Menabde explained. 

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), infectious diseases may indeed spread more easily due to climate change, as disease-carrying insects, such as various types of mosquitoes and ticks, could move into new areas of Europe. Mosquito-borne diseases such as chikungunya fever, West Nile dengue fever and possibly even malaria have already been identified as potential threats by the ECDC.

As for floods, they are, according to predictions, “going to continue to affect EU states substantially,” bringing with them major costs for society and harming the living conditions of people by damaging infrastructure in big cities, added Menabde.

According to the WHO report Protecting health in Europe from climate change, released on World Health Day on 7 April 2008, climate change can pose a threat to overall health security and “failure to respond could be very costly in terms of disease, health care expenditure and lost productivity”.

A threat to health security endangers “the whole existence of certain countries and economies,” and is usually considered under national security plans – with a corresponding military response – rather than under national health plans, Menabde explained. 

“We already observe health effects of climate change,” she added, arguing that for this reason, simply reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climatic warming will not be enough at this point. However, “we can only try to better respond to these challenges” through better equipped health systems, better trained doctors, better technologies, housing and shielding from environmental conditions, she added.

Responding to the challenges will involve “a lot of early-warning, surveillance of infectious diseases and the ability of health services to cope with outbreaks and provide proper treatment to help people out when they are already sick,” said Menabde, adding that communications and media involvement would have a large role to play. “A lot of crises and failures happen because of poor communication and communication is not necessarily the health sector’s core strength,” she said, underlining the need for authorities to establish good communciaiton channels with the population. 

Asked about climate change’s effect on food security, Menabde said that “with droughts and floods obviously you are changing the whole agricultural setting for growing crops,” adding that according to WHO estimates, the yields of crops will decrease by 30% by the end of this century in certain parts of Europe, such as the Mediterranean area. 

“Some things can be done to prevent this and to plan how to cope with these shortages in the long term. We need to elaborate an action plan on how to substitute the reduction of the natural yield of certain food products.” She also said that Europe should be rethinking long-term agricultural business models and trade patterns as climate change may actually change the crops traditionally grown in different parts of the world.

To read the interview in full, please click here.

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