Killer health problems such as diarrhoea, malnutrition, malaria and dengue are highly sensitive to climate change and could worsen in the coming decades, health experts agree. But how, where and to what extent remains unclear.
More than 140,000 lives lost per year – that’s the number of excess deaths global warming since the 1970s was causing by 2004, according to the World Health Organisation.
It’s reasonable to assume the figures could be higher by now.
Health officials and aid workers in developing nations are becoming increasingly worried about how they’re going to cope if the disease burden starts to rise faster.
“The situation in Africa is being worsened because of ill-preparedness… because of weak and already over-stretched health systems,” Evans Tembo from Zambia’s health ministry told a panel discussion at the sixth International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi last week.
In Zambia, for example, 2007 figures show an annual 4 million cases of malaria and 50,000 deaths from the mosquito-borne disease, according to Tembo.
“Zambia is a country with a population of only 12.6 million, so if we’re talking about 50,000 people dying from malaria alone, then for us, it’s a disaster,” he said.
Yet health concerns are often sidelined in climate change debates as people bicker over science, polar bears and responsibility. It wasn’t until the most recent U.N. climate negotiations in Durban late last year that the effects of climate change on health were formally addressed.
One reason is the lack of scientific, evidence-based research on climate and health, especially in developing countries where the impacts are expected to be greatest, panellists said.