Thursday, May 14, 2009

Report outlines global warming health impact

By Stephanie Kennedy for The World Today

ABC News Online, Posted Thu May 14

As the world heats up, so does the debate over the impact of climate change on people's lives.

The first major report investigating the effects of climate change on people's health describes the increase in greenhouse gases as the biggest global threat to health in the 21st century.

As the temperature increases, so will disease and malnutrition in developing countries.

A new report published in the world's leading medical journal The Lancet says the western world will not be immune and can expect heat waves which are so dangerous for the elderly.

"The most important message of this report, is that climate change is the biggest threat to health in the 21st century," says Dr Richard Horton of The Lancet.

"It's a threat that's been completely neglected, marginalised, ignored by not just the global health community, by doctors, nurses and other health professionals, but also by policy makers and yet, in terms of our well being, in terms of our survival over the next hundred years, it is absolutely the top political issue that we should be talking about."

The report's authors argue that climate change is not just an environmental issue concerning polar bears and deforestation, its impact on people's health is already being felt with heat waves and flooding.

Professor Anthony Costello from University College London is one of the lead authors and he warns that the diagnosis is not good with the developing world hardest hit by climate change.

"With food and water security being major problems, you will get big changes in hungry people. About a billion people are hungry right now, and the numbers went up very steeply last year as a result of the food price crisis," he said.

Professor Costello says food prices have not dropped far enough and that if projections about crop yields are correct, more people may be left hungry as the food crisis worsens.

"Malnutrition underpins about 60 per cent of childhood deaths, and water insecurity of course increases the risk of diarrhoeal disease and malnutrition," he said.

"We may well see increasing tropical diseases like dengue fever, new viruses like West Nile Hanta virus and others, and malaria of course in endemic areas, may spread into new areas."

Reasons for optimism

Professor Costello says the impact on western nations will occur both internally and externally, with travellers and the elderly effected in the short term.

But there are reasons for optimism - he argues adapting to climate change and moving towards lowering carbon emissions will result in healthier populations.

"It depends where you are: heat waves will take their toll, you may see more infections from travellers and people travelling to tropical climates will be more vulnerable to extreme events," he said.

"In the longer term, you're going to see more problems arising from food security and population migration.

"But I would turn it on its head and say if we take the actions we need to in the wealthy world, to move to a low carbon lifestyle, there are huge health benefits.

"We're going to have less obesity, less heart disease, less diabetes, less pollution and lung disease, and certainly less stress.

"So I think getting us onto our bikes, and out of our cars, and taking a responsible attitude to the use of fossil fuels is going to have major health benefits."

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