World experts warn of serious health impacts from climate change

GENEVA – Pregnant women, newborns, children, adolescents, and older people are facing serious health complications due to climate change, a new collection of papers published in the Journal of Global Health showed Wednesday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the specific needs of these groups have been largely neglected in the climate response.

“The articles document the available scientific evidence on the health impacts of different climate hazards at key life stages, from heat waves to air pollution and natural disasters like wildfires and flooding,” the WHO said.

“Together, they show that climate-related health risks have been crucially underestimated for younger and older people and during pregnancy, with serious, often life-threatening implications,” it added.

Taking extreme heat as an example, the authors note that preterm births – the leading cause of childhood deaths – spike during heat waves, while older people are more likely to suffer heart attacks or respiratory distress.

Each additional 1°C in minimum daily temperature over 23.9°C (75F) has been shown to increase the risk of infant mortality by as much as 22.4 percent.

“These studies show clearly that climate change is not a distant health threat, and that certain populations are already paying a high price,” said Dr. Anshu Banerjee, director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the WHO.

“While awareness of climate change has increased, actions to safeguard the lives of those at most risk have barely scratched the surface of what’s needed. For climate justice to be achieved, this must be urgently redressed.”

Authored by WHO experts and academics worldwide, the collection, titled “Climate change across the life course,” reports a number of specific physical and mental health impacts that arise due to different climate hazards.

They cite high temperatures associated with adverse birth outcomes, primarily preterm birth, and stillbirth, as well as hypertension and gestational diabetes in pregnancy.

Heat waves affect cognitive function and therefore learning for children and adolescents while increasing heart attacks and respiratory complications among older people, according to the WHO.

Ambient air pollution increases the likelihood of high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, preterm birth, and negative impacts on fetal brain and lung development.

It raises the risk of respiratory illness among children and older people, who also face greater risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and pneumonia.

Climate-related natural disasters have significant mental and physical health impacts. Flooding and drought reduce access to safe water and food supplies, increasing diarrheal diseases and malnutrition.

“Wildfires have been shown to increase respiratory disorders and cardiovascular mortality rates for older people,” the WHO said.

While climate change affects everyone, climate-related displacements and disruptions have severe consequences for those needing regular access to health services and social support.

“Infants and older people as well as pregnant women may have particular physiological risk factors, such as difficulties with temperature regulation, vulnerability to dehydration and/or weaker immune systems,” the WHO said.

They also face disproportionate impacts from the indirect effects of climate change and related disasters like food and water shortages and spikes in vector and water-borne diseases.

“A healthy environment underpins health throughout life, enabling healthy growth and development in childhood and adolescence, healthy pregnancies, and healthy aging,” said Anayda Portela, a scientist at the WHO and an author.

“There is an urgent need to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to build climate resilience; to take specific actions that protect health at these various life stages, and to ensure continuity of health services for those most at risk when climate disasters occur.”

The WHO said 2023 was the warmest year on record in over 170 years, and multiple climate emergencies from wildfires to cyclones, flooding, and extreme heat occurred. (Anadolu)