Climate change a threat to human health

Climate change could result in numerous health risks due to heat waves, under-nutrition and diseases, with specific risks for Europe, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The new report looks at impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation to climate change. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine contributed to the report's findings on the health impacts of climate change.

The chapter 'Human Health: Impacts, Adaptation, and Co-Benefits', edited by Professor Sir Andy Haines and co-authored by Dr Sari Kovats, warns of a number of health risks if climate change continues as projected until mid-century. These include:

  • Greater risk of injury, disease, and death due to more intense heat waves and fires
  • Increased risk of under-nutrition resulting from diminished food production in poor regions
  • Consequences for health of lost work capacity and reduced labour productivity in vulnerable populations
  • Increased risks of food- and water-borne diseases and vector-borne diseases

Sir Andy Haines, Professor of Public Health & Primary Care at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "The IPCC report identifies a number of key risks relevant to human health. These include increased risk of death during periods of extreme heat and reduced labour productivity due to increased thermal stress in vulnerable populations. Threats to health and livelihoods arise from increased flooding in coastal areas in small islands and also due to inland flooding in some areas. Of particular concern is the increased risk of under nutrition resulting from diminished food production in poor regions.

"Many strategies that reduce emissions of climate active pollutants (and thus the rate and magnitude of climate change) can result in large benefits to health, for example from reduced air pollution from shifts to cleaner energy sources. Protecting and improving health should be a major focus of efforts to address the challenges posed by climate change."

The report warns that if some areas experience 4-7 degree temperature rises by the year 2100 as predicted, the combination of high temperatures and high humidity will compromise normal human activities, including growing food or working outdoors, raising doubt about the habitability of some areas, for parts of the year.

The largest risks will apply in populations that are currently most affected by climate-related diseases, according to the report. For example, it is expected that health losses due to climate change-induced under-nutrition will occur mainly in areas that are already food-insecure, and that impacts on health will be reduced in populations that benefit from rapid social and economic development.

The report states that the most effective adaptation measures in the near-term are programmes that implement basic public health measures such as provision of clean water and sanitation, secure essential health care including vaccination and child health services, increase capacity for disaster preparedness and response, and alleviate poverty.

In the 'Europe' chapter of the report, of which Dr Kovats was an author, the report examines how climate change is likely to affect human health specifically in Europe.

Dr Sari Kovats, Senior Lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said: "Climate change is already affecting us in Europe. We reviewed over 1,000 references on impacts in Europe, looking at damage to infrastructure, food production, health and welfare, and natural ecosystems.

"What is interesting about Europe is that some countries and cities have developed adaptation policies, but we don't have good evidence about how effective these will be to avoid the worst impacts, particularly under high rates of warming. It is also clear that some impacts will be unavoidable, and these include species loss.

"Based on the evidence, the greatest threats to Europe will come from the increased frequency and intensity of major heatwaves, wildfires, and from floods, as well as droughts, likely to lead to restrictions to the water supply, particularly in southern Europe."

The authors say that heat-related deaths and injuries are likely to increase, particularly in Southern Europe, which is very likely to see increased frequency and intensity of heat waves. Sea level rises and increases in extreme rainfall are projected to further increase coastal and river flood risk in Europe and, without adaptive measures, will substantially increase flood damages

The report also recognises that climate change has contributed to vector-borne disease in ruminants in Europe and northward expansion of tick disease vectors. It suggests that in the future, climate change may change the distribution and seasonal pattern of some human infections, including those transmitted by arthropods, and increase the risk of introduction of new infectious diseases.

While the capacity to adapt in Europe is high compared to other world regions, the report warns that there are important differences in impacts and in the capacity to respond between European sub-regions.

Writing in The Lancet, Prof Haines, Dr Kovats and other contributors to the report further discuss its assessment of the anticipated effects of climate change on health.

Image: IPCC report cover. Credit: IPCC.

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