This past Friday, the U.S. Expo Center of the international climate change conference (COP16) hosted a side event focused on the human health effects of climate change. Panelists included representatives of the National Institutes of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), as well as a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports. Their presentations covered the range of devastating effects climate change will have on altering the distribution of disease vectors, intensifying water scarcity and drought, as well as dramatically increasing cases of malnutrition at a global level. Although these effects will impact people all over the world at a variety of scales and social positions, the most vulnerable members of society will be hardest hit. And according to presenters on the panel, the most vulnerable members of society worldwide are children.
According to one panelist, 85% of the additional global illness and deaths associated with climate change most directly impact children, including increasing cases of malnutrition, malaria, diarrheal diseases and extreme heat events. At the same time, children will face the longest cumulative exposures to climate change over the course of their lifetimes. As one recent report documents, 85,000 diarrheal deaths among children under five are now attributable to climate change. In some African countries, crop yields are expected to fall by as much as 50% in the next 10 years. This is particularly worrisome in a region with the world's lowest birth weights and highest prevalence of underweight children.
Unfortunately, climate change and global health professionals are slow to come together to address these impacts. Here at COP16, out of 1,000 officially registered side events, only 4 address human health issues. Whether reflective of a need for capacity building within the health sector, or increased collaboration between researchers and program managers in the health and environmental sectors, these numbers reveal a significant gap in research and interventions working at the nexus of climate change and human health. Clearly, the need for leadership from the public health community is strong. As one panelist argued, "If there is one point that people must take home from this conference, it is that the real face of climate change is human- it is about our health, and that of our children!"
For more information on what the Public Health Institute is doing to address the impacts of climate change on human health, please read more about our Center for Public Health & Climate Change: www.climatehealthconnect.org