Wednesday, December 12, 2007

WHO: Health sector needs to wake up to effects of climate change

International Herald Tribune: The world must prepare now for the serious impact climate change will have on health, from a jump in waterborne diseases to heart attacks and heat-wave deaths, the World Health Organization said Monday. "We need to wake up," warned Alex Hildebrand, an environmental health adviser from WHO's regional office in New Delhi. "We need to take this much more seriously."

The global health body was hosting a three-day workshop during a massive climate conference on Bali island, where delegates from nearly 190 nations are seeking ways to head off scientific predictions of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, severe flooding and droughts.

Rising temperatures have already directly or indirectly killed more than 1 million people worldwide since 2000, WHO has said, more than half in the Asia-Pacific, the world's most populous region. Those figures do not include deaths linked to urban air pollution, which kills about 800,000 worldwide each year. Countries such as Nepal and Bhutan have already reported vector-borne diseases like malaria for the first time in higher elevations — probably because rising temperatures are pushing mosquitoes to those areas.

Elsewhere, rising sea levels caused by melting ice caps will contribute to salt water intrusion into clean drinking water, said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO's deputy director of the region. Heat waves will lead to increased deaths and heart problems, she said.

"These countries are ... grappling with so many other issues," Singh said, adding that mental health must also be remembered as families are forced to relocate away from eroding coastlines, leading to anxiety and stress. "Will they have the money to look at climate change? How do they address the problem?" she asked.

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