WHO Director-General addresses conference on health and climate
Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization
Excellencies, honourable ministers, distinguished participants, colleagues in the United Nations system, ladies and gentlemen,
It is good to see so many ministers here. Let me warmly welcome you to this conference on health and climate. Thank you for giving us your expertise and your time. You have an important job to do.
Debates about climate change are still not giving sufficient attention to the profound effects that climate variables have on health.
In my view, the well-documented health effects are what matters most. Climate and weather affect the air people breathe, the food they eat, and the water they drink.
Signals about what human activities have done to the environment are becoming increasingly shrill. Records for extreme weather events are being broken a record number of times.
Our planet is losing its capacity to sustain human life in good health. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most disturbing report to date, with a strong focus on the consequences for health. That report also underscored specific health interventions that strengthen resilience to climate change and contribute to sustainable development.
In March, The World Health Organization revised its estimates of the health effects of air pollution upwards. In 2012, exposure to air pollution killed around 7 million people worldwide, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk.
Climate variables contribute to natural disasters, with their related population displacements, lost livelihoods, destroyed infrastructures, and conditions of crowding and filth that favour explosive outbreaks of disease. Diarrhoeal diseases, the second biggest killer of young children, flourish under such conditions..
Many of the world’s most worrisome diseases have transmission cycles that are profoundly shaped by conditions of heat and humidity and patterns of rainfall. As one important example, malaria parasites and the mosquitoes that transmit them are highly sensitive to climate variability, which has been repeatedly linked to epidemics.
Other epidemic-prone diseases, like cholera, dengue, and bacterial meningitis, are likewise highly sensitive to climate variability. All of these diseases have a huge potential for social disruption and make huge logistical demands on response teams.
Will the international humanitarian community be able to cope with a growing number of such events?
Climate also influences the emergence of new diseases. About 75% of all new human diseases originate in domestic or wild animals.
Climate variables, including those that influence the availability of food and water, have a direct impact on wild animal populations, their concentrations, and their incursion into areas inhabited by humans.
Climate-related shifts in animal populations can allow an animal pathogen to jump the species barrier and infect humans, as in the case of Nipah virus in Malaysia, and Hanta virus in the US.
In this case, emergence of a severe new respiratory disease was linked to a long period of drought, followed by heavy rainfall, that affected populations of deer mice.
I am aware of speculation that climate change may influence the frequency of outbreaks of Ebola virus disease.
I must emphasize we have no evidence that this is the case. Wild animals, notably fruit bats and monkeys, are implicated in the start of most Ebola outbreaks.
But this is only a small part of the consequences that climate change has for human health.
Climate change is the defining issue of the 21st century. I seek your help in getting world leaders to push this issue to centre stage. The drive for sustainable development must go hand-in-hand with the drive to address climate change.
I wish you a most productive meeting.