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CLIMATE CHANGE: Health at Risk

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Nov 20 2009 (IPS) - The impacts of climate change on human health will require new approaches to development, based on mitigation and adaptation programmes in line with policies that ensure equal access to health care.

That was one of the conclusions of a panel during the 2009 Global Forum for Health Research, which drew researchers, policy makers and representatives of development agencies and NGOs from Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland and the United States to Havana Nov. 16-20.

Climate change is an opportunity for everyone, not just researchers, to strengthen public health systems with the resources that are available, Gilma Mantilla, a senior staff associate at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, told IPS.

Mantilla, one of the panelists in the session on “climate change, innovation and health equity”, said there are currently 20 to 25 infectious diseases that have a close link to climate, like malaria, meningococcal meningitis, dengue fever and influenza.

Referring to the shift in the geographic distribution of diseases that is being brought about by global warming, the expert pointed out that malaria-bearing mosquitoes are spreading to new areas where they were not previously found.

A Global Forum for Health Research report produced this year on financing of R&D in health, which was circulating at this week’s gathering, notes that the world’s poorest and most marginalised populations are the most vulnerable to climate change threats to health, while their needs are the last to be taken into account.

The Global Forum for Health Research, an international foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland, was established in 1997 with the aim of increasing the amount of research into global health issues. It coined the phrase “10/90 gap” to illustrate that only 10 percent of the world’s pharmaceutical research goes to diseases that account for 90 percent of the global disease burden.

The Forum, a partner to the World Health Organisation (WHO), holds its annual forum to draw attention to global health research and promote dialogue on the issue.

The report says research to promote, protect and reestablish health among the poorest populations must not be seen as a secondary aspect, but as “literally a life or death issue.”

It adds that the significant disparities in health between rich and poor countries are largely due to a lack of investment in development in general and in improvements in the health system, to make it more equitable and accessible to the lowest-income sectors.

The WHO concurs that the impacts of climate change on human health will not be evenly distributed around the globe, and identifies developing country populations, especially in small island states, arid and high mountain zones, and densely populated coastal areas, as “particularly vulnerable.”

The United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) State of World Population 2009 report, released Nov. 18, states that climate change threatens to aggravate poverty.

“Poor households are especially vulnerable to climate change because their marginal income provides little or no access to health services or other safety nets to protect against the threats from changing conditions and because they lack the resources to relocate when crises strike. Some of the possible direct threats that climate change could pose on the region’s poor include death and illness resulting from extreme heat, unusual cold, infectious diseases and malnutrition,” says the report.

The UNFPA also says that “climate change has the potential to reverse the hard-earned development gains of the past decades and the progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), according to the World Bank.”

The MDGs, adopted by the international community at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, are to halve extreme poverty and hunger from 1990 levels by 2015, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and maternal health, reduce child mortality, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development.

The UNFPA report was released ahead of the world climate change conference to be held Dec. 7-18 in Copenhagen, where negotiators will seek a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

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