The race is not over – Climate crisis remains a health crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Climate change exacerbates respiratory diseases, which are the third leading cause of death worldwide, according to the WHO [Shutterstock/TR STOK]

This article is part of our special report The impact of climate change on respiratory diseases.

As we reflect on the lesson of COVID and face up to the realities of a humanitarian crisis on European soil, it’s understandable that we find ourselves re-assessing what’s important to us as individuals and as a European society.

Alessandro Chiesi is the Chief Commercial Officer of Chiesi Farmaceutici.

Personally, I’ve seen a strange splintering of priorities. I’ve watched as friends and colleagues turn their individual and collective focus both to the highly personal and to the mega-societal at the same time.  We spend huge focus on our own safety, our physical and mental health, our homes and our work; and at the same time, we are preoccupied by geopolitics.

We look at our micro choices and our governments’ macro choices with equal concerns. And I marvel at how drastically different this is from one or two years ago. The days of Greta Thunberg’s strike for the planet, the unified cry for climate action, all this seems to have fallen silent, pushed aside by a horrific armed conflict at our doorstep.

A hot, wet or windy summer?

Faced with imminent threats, it is easy to forget, perhaps, that the climate change concerns are not far away and abstract, they are also very real, and even dangerous. I write this on a hot day, as we’re about to enter full summer, and I know during the next months we will again read expressions of surprise at how very hot it’s been, or how very cold, windy or wet the weather.

Sadly, the unpredictability brought in by climate change is now predictable, there shouldn’t be any surprise. I know from the data that we will see dangerously adverse climate events in the coming weeks. As someone who works in respiratory health, I am very concerned to know that people will be suffering from serious diseases directly related to the quality of the air they breathe.

But as a citizen I know it will serve as an important reminder. This can be a season we again will see raised awareness about the already-present effects of the climate crisis; it is essential that we remind both people and policymakers that these issues are set to worsen, and we need to continue to take action. Their effects on our health, our wellbeing, our longevity, are already well known.

We can observe that respiratory system diseases are responsible for 7.5 % of all deaths in the EU-27, according to the latest Eurostat statistics, and that it’s getting worse. The focus from governments and the EU on air pollution is very strong, but sometimes misses the nuance that it is exacerbated by climate extremes which Europe increasingly suffers. Given that these air pollutants directly worsen our respiratory health and that they exacerbate existing respiratory conditions, this is a crisis we need to take seriously.

One conversation with two topics

It is widely known in specialist academic and medical circles that respiratory health issues are closely linked to the climate crisis, and yet policy to address the two is barely discussed in the same conversation. The legislative world, like our business world, seems to favour specialisation. We see our politicians discuss and debate, one problem, one topic, one issue at a time. This co-dependency – even co-morbidity – between issues isn’t something that is easy to manage, and yet it’s extremely urgent that they find a way to do so.

There are many reasons to take the issues seriously. We know that the most vulnerable in society fall prey to the worst health effects which climate change brings. These include elderly people, outdoor workers and people from lower socioeconomic groups because they have poorer overall health outcomes and are more likely to live in lower quality housing in areas with greater air pollution.

In fact, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA), almost all city dwellers in Europe are exposed to air pollution levels that exceed WHO guidelines on particulate matter. Why are we so accepting of this? Why do we not draw the conversations together?

Respiratory disease is a leading cause of death worldwide

Climate change exacerbates respiratory disease, respiratory disease is the third leading cause of death worldwide, according to the WHO[1]. We also know that these climate change-driven impacts are widening the health inequality in European society. But we are easily distracted, our personal newsfeed has moved on elsewhere, literally drowning out these conversations.

This summer we see climate change and the EU’s Fit for 55 package is high on political agendas, but we are looking at the causes of climate change and its remedies in isolation from the health impacts they have. We urge policymakers to have a broader discussion about how far-reaching its consequences can be – and how we are all affected. A 2021 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit highlights the hidden crisis in the climate conversation, its impact on respiratory health.

The report calls for seizing the opportunity to unite the discussions of public health and policy leaders, acknowledging how important it is to protect respiratory health within our sustainability prioritisation. It is a real and present danger for the vulnerable in our societies. And it goes far beyond air pollution.

Starting the debate

Why am I so focused on this? Because in my work I see every day we are not winning the war on climate, nor on respiratory health; we miss the synaptic connection between these discussions. It’s also because I am keen that we find a way to kick-start a new awareness in the EU about the need to act and the upcoming opportunity to do so. I am taking part in a panel discussion about these issues which I believe can be part of this new awareness.

Bringing these issues out in the open, and starting the debate is a key initiative. The session “Climate change and impact on respiratory diseases: how to balance patient and planet health” at the World Health Summit Regional Meeting in Rome on 16 June at 11:00-12:30 will feature experts in the field:

  • Omar Usmani, Imperial College of London, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at the National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI), Imperial College London
  • Susanna Palkonen, Director of the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases
  • Isabella Annesi-Maesano, Research director INSERM
  • Sara Cerdas Member of the EU Parliament
  • Alessandro Chiesi, Chief Commercial Officer of Chiesi Group
  • MODERATOR: Carlo Martuscelli, journalist

Click here for more info on the session.

[1] World Health Organisation. The Global Impact of Respiratory Disease, 2017. Found here: https://www.who.int/gard/publications/The_Global_Impact_of_Respiratory_Disease.pdf. Accessed 24 June 2021

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