Report: Climate change could ‘wipe out decades of public health gains’, hitting children the hardest

Malnutrition and infectious diseases are cited as two of the climate-linked health challenges due to worsen in the near future

Published in The Lancet and backed by more than 30 global scientific and health bodies, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), the study explored the human health impacts of a “business-as-usual” pathway, which could result in up to 4C of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Taking into account research by 120 experts, the study tracked the likely impact of this level of warming across 41 key health and wellbeing indicators, to create a picture of the climate-related health issues babies born this year will face by the time they turn 71.

The study concludes that this generation of children will, from their early years, suffer from weaker immune systems and be more highly affected by health issues related to air, water and land pollution than their predecessors.

As the decades pass, levels of malnutrition will escalate, the study claims, with global yields of crops such as rice, soy and maize set to plummet as temperatures surpass 2C above pre-industrial levels. Indeed, the study cites malnutrition as the global public health issue which could define the next seven decades.

Another key trend predicted in the study is a rise in infectious diseases, which spread more readily in hot weather and can be spread by events such as flooding. The Lancet claims that the number of “climatically suitable” days annually for Vibrio bacteria to thrive have doubled since the early 1990s, and that nine of the ten worst years for dengue transmission in human history have fallen since 200, as mosquitos spread across the globe.

The study forms part of The Lancet Countdown – a project tracking connections between public health and climate change. It concludes that while these issues are likely to hit warmer nations such as India and Africa in the first instance, the effects will be felt globally and worsen over time. 

“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate,” The Lancet Countdown’s executive director Dr Nick Watts said.

“Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants.

“The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime. Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in wellbeing and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation.”

The stark warning comes in the same week that the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its annual World Energy Outlook for 2019 – a report which claims that emissions from the global energy sector will continue to rise past 2040 without a “grand coalition” of governments and investors.

Sarah George

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