Healthcare and climate change

The health impacts of climate change will not be addressed without strong public health systems, according to recent analysis by a joint United Nations body.

To mark World Health Day this year, the joint World Meteorological Organization (WMO)-World Health Organization (WHO) Office on Climate Change took a look at the role of universal health care systems in protecting people from the myriad of growing health risks tied to our changing environment:

Health sector in focus

“A community health centre becomes flooded and loses power during a severe storm and is unable to provide essential obstetrics care and treat the injured people showing up for help. An agriculture worker experiences heat stroke, but is unable to receive life-saving medical treatment without access to health insurance and ambulatory care. A national health system overwhelmed by a cholera outbreak following a flood finds little capacity to focus on other health crises.”

These scenarios are just a few examples of the wide range of impacts the health sector faces as it increasingly grapples with extreme weather, disease epidemics, displacements, economic downturns, and infrastructure failures driven by climate change, according to the WMO-WHO. When these shocks occur, it suggests, critical services can be hindered just as people need them most – compounding risk and resulting in more illness and lives lost.

Resilient health systems 

The importance of access to health services and information as a basic human right is universal, but we are still far from achieving universal health coverage, according to the WMO-WHO. It says that 30% of the global population is still unable to access essential health services, and almost two billion people face catastrophic or impoverishing health spending – with disproportionate impacts hitting those in the most vulnerable settings:

“While those without universal health coverage face greater barriers to accessing care overall, service delivery can be severely impacted by climate hazards even in areas where healthcare is advanced, accessible and affordable. Climate-resilient universal healthcare systems are a core requirement to achieving equitable and meaningful protections.”

Impacts of climate change.

The WMO-WHO adds that climate resilient health systems are able to anticipate, respond to, cope with, recover from and adapt to climate-related shocks and stress, to bring sustained improvements in population health, despite an unstable climate:

“The design and maintenance of public health infrastructure may be the most important, cost-effective and urgently needed strategy for healthcare systems to adapt to our changing climate. Infrastructure designed to reduce vulnerability enables healthcare systems to operate as intended when faced with both acute and chronic climate shocks and stressors. This includes both healthcare infrastructure (such as flood control systems, air conditioning, generators etc) – as well as the public infrastructure that supports healthcare systems and healthy communities (such as water and sanitation systems, laboratories, access roads etc).”

Action areas

Universal health coverage is a political and social choice, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for strong political leadership and public support for #HealthForAll:

  • The WMO – WHO Joint Office for Climate and Health supports WHO’s calls for Universal Health Coverage as a key step towards protecting all populations from the worst impacts of climate change.
  • On the climate services side, WMO is leading the charge to ensure that everyone on Earth is protected by early warnings in the next 5 years – meaning all health systems will have sufficient time to prepare for impending hazards – through its Early Warnings for All initiative, which calls for initial new targeted investments between 2023 and 2027 of $3.1 billion – a sum which the UN claims would be dwarfed by the benefits. 

One of the pillars of this initiative is to communicate risk information so it reaches all those who need it, and is understandable and usable. A multi-channel approach sending alerts over radio, television, mobile networks, social media, sirens increases the effectiveness of an alert and helps address the diversity of communities at risk. The Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a standardised data format to exchange public warnings.

Another pillar is to collect data and undertake risk assessments to increase knowledge on hazards and vulnerabilities and trends. Led by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Protection (UNDRR) with support from the WMO.

Additional action areas:

  • Strengthening health systems, including healthcare facilities, is a key part of health adaptation planning, and should be included in each country’s Health National Adaptation Plan. At the same time, action to mitigate and adapt to climate change is urgently needed to lessen climate-related burdens on health systems.
  • In addition to building climate-resilient healthcare systems, we must take advantage of all opportunities to reduce climate emissions from the healthcare sector, both to put health systems on a climate-smart development path, and align the sector with global climate goals.

The importance of access to health services and information as a basic human right is universal, but we are still far from achieving universal health coverage, according to the WMO-WHO. It says that 30% of the global population is still unable to access essential health services, and almost two billion people face catastrophic or impoverishing health spending

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