UK doctors: Climate change ‘gravest threat’ to human health

Intro

The UK’s leading health institutions are today calling for greater action to tackle one of the “the gravest threats to health”. The newly formed UK Health Alliance on Climate Change warns that more frequent extreme weather events like flooding and heatwaves pose direct risks to health and systemic threats to hospitals and health services, while climate change will also bring untold impacts for human health, including the spread of diseases and malnutrition. As with other risks before it, such as tobacco, HIV/AIDS and polio, the alliance aims to address the “unacceptable threat to wellbeing” caused by climate change, and add their weight to growing calls for a cleaner, safer, healthier future. Responding to climate change will have real benefits for health, with the alliance stressing that strong action would put the UK at the centre of the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”.

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Background

Following its 2009 report which dubbed climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” last year, the Lancet Commissions released a new report which not only reaffirmed the severity of the threat climate change poses to global health – labelling it a “medical emergency”, but showed that tackling the crisis could be the “greatest health opportunity of the 21st Century.”

The international team of researchers behind the report showed that the threat to human health from climate change is so great, it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and public health. They also note that many policies to address climate change are “no-regret”, in that they will reduce ill health, enhance resilience, alleviate poverty and address inequality. By investing in clean energy over fossil fuels for example, governments will not only be reducing the climate threat, immediately improving air quality and reducing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, but will also be supporting a technology which has proven to improve the lives of the world’s poor faster and cheaper than outdated coal.

The UK is no exception. Scientists are warning that man-made pollution more than doubled the risk of heatwaves like that seen in 2003 that killed over 2,000 people, warning that premature deaths from overheating could triple to 7,000 per year by the 2050s. The risk of flooding has also doubled in the England and Wales because of climate change, leaving almost 10 per cent of health care building at risk of being inundated and both physical and mental health impacts on UK citizens. Water quality food supplies could both be hit by changing temperatures and rainfall patterns, while climate change is also predicted to heighten the risk of vector-borne disease in the UK, for example West Nile virus and Dengue fever.

However, taking action on climate change could also bring multiple benefits to UK health. Coal pollution alone is responsible for 1,600 death each year in the UK, and up to £3.1 billion per year in health costs, while around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution. Phasing out fossil fuels, particularly coal, would help limit these deaths and prevent health problems such as cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Meanwhile promoting travel by foot or bike and increasing fuel efficiency in cities could lead to savings in NHS and social security costs of £15 billion by 2030, promoting healthy, lower carbon diets could see significant cuts to emissions, and improving energy efficiency in homes could avoid 5400 premature deaths each year across the UK.

In the wake of the Lancet’s findings, a group of Britain’s major health institutions have come together to encourage stronger, smarter approaches to climate change that protect and promote public health, whilst also reducing the burden on health services.

The Alliance’s founding members include the Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Royal College of Anaesthetists, Royal College of Psychiatrists; Faculty of Public Health, Royal Society of Medicine, the Climate and Health Council, the Lancet, the British Medical Association and the British Medical Journal.

Together the alliance will raise awareness of the risks to health from climate change and the benefits that tackling it can bring, help doctors and medical professionals to take action and call for a strong policy responses – both nationally and internationally – to protect public health in tackling climate change.

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Key Quotes

  • “Ensuring that our NHS doesn’t fail as a result of the threats we face is vital. “The Zika Virus epidemic in South America, and the impact of heatwaves in Europe including in the UK, clearly demonstrate the devastating effects that result when the public and the health systems they rely on are unprepared for and overwhelmed by new challenges. France now has an action plan in place which reduced the 2010 heatwave deathtoll.  Let’s not wait for disaster on this scale to strike the UK before we are properly prepared.” – John Ashton, President of the Faculty of Public Health
  • “We see firsthand what happens in A&E departments when severe weather hits. Elderly people, pregnant women and children can be especially vulnerable and are often the first to get into difficulty. Flooding in particular makes homes uninhabitable and displaces large numbers of people. Those who rely on home-care services to support them lose their independence. Even temporary displacement can result in long term physical and psychological damage.” – President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Clifford Mann
  • “As with other public health threats, doctors and nurses are coming together to call for stronger, smarter measures to tackle climate change. By providing their patients with small but important changes in their lives that benefit their health, healthcare professionals can also play a significant role in reducing the financial pressures on the NHS and the wider impacts of climate change. Through their one to one contact with their patients, health professionals are uniquely placed to help people understand the range of benefits that come from these small changes.” – Janet Davies, RCN Chief Executive & General Secretary
  • “Climate change represents a potentially catastrophic threat to human health. The Lancet’s 2015 Commission on Health and Climate Change, together with our Commission on the Anthropocene and Planetary Health, warned that the current climate crisis could undermine the past fifty years of gains in development and global health unless we act decisively now. The case for action is clear: responses to mitigate and adapt to climate change, from reducing air pollution to improving diet, represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century. By working with health professionals and supporting them by providing the best available evidence, we believe that together we can make the case for change.” – Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-chief for The Lancet
  • “Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of global warming and climate change and they require vocal advocacy to safeguard their health. Climate change adversely affects each of the principal environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food and secure shelter. Children in poor countries are disproportionately affected, but even in rich countries, children bear the brunt of harm. We are hurtling towards a future where the health, wellbeing, and livelihood of children will be seriously compromised. The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change of which we are a member, calls for effective action now to secure the future of our children and grandchildren, and the generations to follow.” – Professor Neena Modi, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Related Alerts

Health professionals demand urgent climate action following IPCC report

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