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New World Health Organization head must act on climate

Tuesday, 23 May 2017 08:58 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

WHO’s job will be made harder by the growing threat and worsening impacts of climate change

For nearly seven decades, the World Health Organization (WHO) has served as the international authority on issues in global health, working continuously to combat disease, promote public health, and support countries and communities who have been struck by natural disasters and other health emergencies. The work has never been easy and the challenges always great, but the WHO’s job will be made harder still by the growing threat and worsening impacts of climate change.

When the World Health Assembly elects a new director-general this week, the incoming head will have an astonishingly wide range of responsibilities across the organisation’s many critical programs. For instance, they oversee the WHO's work founding and supporting the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, working together to harmonise action and mobilise resources to fight the disease in endemic countries. And they will direct a WHO that hosts the world’s authoritative database of disease - the International Classification of Diseases.

They also will work to enforce the International Health Regulations, a key international legal instrument that requires all member states of the WHO to report and address certain disease outbreaks and public health events. They’ll support countries as they combat global pandemics, promote critical health research, and labour to bring medicine and health care supplies to all communities in need. That’s to name just a few of the dozens of life changing programs the WHO coordinates.

Over the years and more recently under the leadership of Margaret Chan, the WHO has worked to better understand how climate change threatens public health. Chan called climate change "the defining issue of the 21st Century". The next director-general must build on this legacy and do more, by increasing funding to help countries and health systems respond to climate change, and better integrating climate concerns throughout all the WHO’s programmes.

We see the impacts firsthand in our own countries. 

Ethiopia is currently enduring another dangerous rainless stretch. An estimated 5.6 million Ethiopians are now in urgent need of food and other medical assistance. The government has mobilised $800 million in aid to address this challenge - and committed to being a part of the solution around climate change despite having some of the lowest per person carbon emissions in the world - but the costs of a changing climate are clear.

In Pakistan, climate change has delivered alternating blows of heat and historic rains. Record breaking floods in 2010 submerged over one-fifth of the country’s entire landmass, affecting more than 20 million, and deadly flooding has returned in every year since. The floods also create a breeding ground for dangerous pathogens - more than 2 million in the southern province of Sindh alone succumbed to diarrhoeal diseases. In 2015, more than 1,500 lives were claimed and tens of thousands more suffered heat-related illnesses during a brutal heat wave that saw thermometers spike around 49°C.

In the United Kingdom, the likelihood of extreme rainfall like that which produced the historic autumn flooding of 2000 has already doubled because of greenhouse gas emissions. Seeing as nearly one-in-ten health care buildings in England sit in flood risk zones, this presents a double-pronged risk to public health.

These worrying trends reveal that climate change threatens to undermine the fundamental determinants of public health, and will exacerbate many of the health challenges the WHO faces. No country - high, middle, or low income, developed or developing - is immune to the impacts. The organisation estimates that warming will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year by 2030. Tragically, these impacts are being - and will be - borne the most by children, the elderly, and low-income populations.

The WHO is already working to tackle these threats. For instance, it’s working with the least-developed countries to create national health adaptation plans to build climate resilience into their health systems. The WHO is also collaborating with the Lancet Countdown and the World Meteorological Organization to track progress on health and climate change, factoring the co-benefits to public health created by a transition away from fossil fuels.

In the wake of the historic Paris Agreement, the WHO needs to redouble these efforts to understand climate impacts on public health and help countries - especially those most vulnerable and least equipped to deal with climate impacts - bolster their climate and health resiliency. To fully recognise and take on the climate threat, the next director-general should make specific recommendations about coal’s impacts, which delivers the duel threat of polluting air locally and lining the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and fund more research on the breadth and severity of these impacts.

The WHO has come a long way in its role on climate change, and has been a global leader in recognising the threats that a hotter, wetter, and more volatile planet poses to public health. The next director-general must build on this progress, while doing even more to ensure that partners are prepared to protect public health in a warmer, wetter, more dangerous world.

*Mark Porter is chair of the British Medical Association, Gemechis Mamo Fetene is president of the Ethiopian Medical Association, S.M.Qaisar Sajjad is secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association Centre.