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The greatest impacts from climate change will be in the health and well-being of the human species!

World Health Day 2008
"Protecting Health from Climate Change"
Washington, D.C.
April 7, 2008.

Mirta Roses-Periago*, Director
Pan American Health Organization.

Every year on 7 April, WHO and PAHO, in celebration of World Health Day, identify a topic of global public health interest as a theme. For 2008 the theme is Protecting Health from Climate Change. This year is in fact quite special. We are also celebrating 30 years of the Alma Ata Conference and Declaration and we are also celebrating WHO's 60th anniversary, with the theme: Our Health, Our Future.

Climate Change and Health

Climate change is an intrinsic element of the history of this planet. The scientific alliances allow us to better understand the phenomenon and our role of accelerating its stages and cycles. The evidence of this process has become stronger and clearer over time. Last year the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change submitted its fourth assessment report with more evidence than ever before on what is happening to the global climate. The report has been reviewed, and approved, by hundreds of scientific peer-reviewers and by national Governments.

Climate Change and Human Health: Risk and Responses.
Revised Summary 2008.

It is my pleasure to announce that today we are launching the revised summary of the document on "Climate Change and Human Health: Risk and Responses" which was prepared by WHO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and which includes the latest data accumulated in the past five years and from the from the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

People have been greatly concerned about the effect that climate change will have on the environment, but data point to one direction: The greatest impacts will be in the health and well-being of the human species!

Climate change impacts health both directly-for example, through heat waves, floods and storms, and other extreme weather events; and indirectly, through effects on infectious disease, on water availability, and on agricultural production.

These are not minor issues. Diseases that are sensitive to climate include some of our biggest killers, such as malaria and diarrhea, and climate change increases risk factors for other conditions such as malnutrition, the single largest contributor to the global burden of disease. These are also diseases of children and of the poor. Indeed, when it comes to climate change, those whose health is most at risk are those who have contributed least to the problem. The poor, whether in rural or urban areas, have always suffered more from the consequences of a degraded environment. Lack of safe food and water has resulted in diarrheal diseases in children and malnutrition in the long term. Climate change now threatens to perpetuate these problems. Our fight for equity is at stake.

Some diseases are highly sensitive to temperature and precipitation. Some years ago, a team of U.S. and Peruvian scientists working in Lima took daily records both of temperature and of the number of children admitted to a pediatric clinic due to acute diarrheal disease. On hot summer days and during the El Niño phenomenon of 1997-1998, more and more patients were admitted. This pattern is seen throughout the developing world. It suggests that even small temperature increases may lead to an important increase in this disease in the poorest of populations.

Dengue is another climate sensitive disease which greatly affects our Region. It is clear that its spread is closely correlated with warm, humid conditions. This known relationship has been used to study incidence of the disease with future climate changes. The conclusions are worrisome. The expected climate change is likely to increase the risks of dengue for millions of people over the coming decades.

PAHO, WHO, United Nations, Health Authorities

We have been working on understanding the health impacts of climate change for a long time. The first WHO assessment came out in 1990. In that report environmental contaminants which cause health problems, such as ozone depletion, were identified as gases which merit special attention. Thus, the process identified as the greatest contributor to climate change today, has already caused extensive damage to Public Health as an unlimited environmental contaminant.

Our work has evolved, from describing the risks to health due to climate change, the training of health practitioners, and guidance on how to do risk assessment and prevention planning, to proposing practical guidance on protecting health from specific climate risks.

In recent months, ministers of health of our Region and from around the world have been raising the issue of climate change at their meetings. They are requesting PAHO and WHO to do more to support them in a more coordinated and strategic approach to protect human health from climate change. We are not only responding but we have anticipated their concerns. In 1995 PAHO raised the issue at the Conference on Human Health and Climate Change, at the National Academy of Sciences here in Washington, alongside many experts and leaders concerned with public health, among them, the then U.S. Vice-President Albert Gore.

In Barbados, in 2002, we held the first International Conference on climate change and the impacts on health of the people in the Caribbean region. This was done in partnership with other UN and national agencies. In 2007 we held the first International Conference on Climate Change and the Effects on Health in the Central American Region, which was closed by Nobel Peace Prize recipient, President Oscar Arias. We have held several other similar events globally, and this week, in Brazil, we are hosting the First Regional Workshop to develop a Regional Plan of Action on Climate Change and Health, which will be presented to the health ministers, during PAHO's Directing Council in September 2008.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for "mitigation," that is, measures should be taken by countries to reduce the release of greenhouse gases. But because some aspects of climate change are irreversible, at least in the short to medium term, it also calls for "adaptation," by the different sectors. It is clear in the health sector that "Adapting to Climate Change" and "Protecting Public Health" are in fact the same agenda. The work of the health sector, in controlling infectious disease, in reducing environmental risk factors, and in providing health action in natural disasters, is already protecting populations from the health risks of climate change. But the health sector can and should also contribute to mitigation, by identifying ways to reduce their environmental impact, and in particular the emission of greenhouse gases, in its operations.

"Green PAHO" initiative

Today, I am also launching the "Green PAHO" initiative, an integral way to convert our working environment "green" and thus continue our goal of building Healthy Environments.

Taking into account that a Healthy and Safe Work Environment has a positive impact on the well-being and health of our staff members, their families, and the community in general, from the moment I became Director of PAHO in 2003, the subject of a Healthy Organization has been an aspect of special interest in our work agenda. In recent years, we have achieved some progress, but from this moment on, with a systematic and integrated approach, we wish to develop a Health and Well-being Program in the Organization, including Representative Offices and Centers.

For this purpose, Committees of Health, Safety, and Well-being will be created, which, in coordination with the Area of Human Resources Management (HRM), will be responsible for the definition of a Plan of Action.

In order to obtain this objective, I invite, not only staff members, but also the Staff Association, the Family Association, and the Association of Former Staff Members to actively participate in this process.

To properly address climate change and its impact on health, we need a Comprehensive Framework of Action. This framework should be focused on broad areas, addressing Evidence for action, implementing Adaptation mechanisms in the health sector, and providing Leadership to both protect people from climate change and promote healthier environments for all.

Under EVIDENCE, we need to increase knowledge, information and awareness of the health consequences of climate change. Although evidence accumulates with good research, we clearly understand that we already have enough evidence to know that we need to act. Lack of complete evidence is no justification for inaction. We need to carry out the applied research that tells us how best to intervene - not how much to worry, but how to respond. But we must also disseminate information so that health professionals, in every corner of the Region, can help in protecting people from the threats of climate change. And we need to create the much needed awareness: that we can all fight climate change and we can take this unique opportunity to make a healthier planet.

The Communication Initiative Network in the Region of the Americas

Today I have the pleasure of launching "The Communication Initiative Network in the Region of the Americas" for 2008. This initiative will include:

- Debates among approximately 1,500 journalists of the Region on the topic of climate change and health, and
- The Latin American Health Journalism Award focusing on climate change and health

Under ADAPTATION we must work harder to strengthen public health systems to address additional threats from climate change and we must improve our response to public health emergencies.

We need to be able to supply the basic health services, including during public health emergencies, such as floods, storms and heat-waves. They are the vanguard for the protection of the people from potential harm of climate change.

We need to consider health systems in the broad sense: doctors, nurses and hospitals, but also public health prevention. Our most effective responses to protect health from climate change are basic public health interventions.

Under LEADERSHIP we must promote and lead cross-disciplinary partnerships to ensure effective adaptation and mitigation actions.

Thirty (30) years ago, the Alma Ata declaration provided a vision of primary health care, and PAHO has carried out this vision. Climate change reminds us of the importance of maintaining this vision.

Climate change threatens to increase the disease burdens of the poorest, and to undermine their progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. It is therefore yet another reason to expand our efforts to control high prevalence diseases, many of which are linked of poverty.

We are aware that in today's world, no single agency can solve health threats alone, and this is especially true for climate change. We will create the necessary partnerships to protect people, to enhance public health, to maintain the Primary Health Care spirit alive in front of a changing world.

Colleagues and friends, for this event we have chosen the image of Pachamama, the universal image of Mother Earth, or the protector of life. This is a positive image, a vision that tells us we can all contribute to protect our planet and to protect our health.



More information:
- Spanish version: Nuestro Planeta, nuestra Salud, nuestro Futuro, están en nuestras manos

Director's BLOG
- El Día Mundial del Ambiente y la Salud [08/06/2007]. Artículo BLOG de la Directora.
- World Environment Day and Health [15/06/2007]. Director's BLOG Article.

For more information, please contact Diaz, Eng. Katia (WDC), Director's Office Web Master.