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Mitigating the health risks of climate change

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As the effects of global climate change become more pronounced around the world with rising temperatures, ongoing drought conditions and flooding in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, scientists and health experts are increasingly focusing on its impact on human health and plans to mitigate these health risks.

Projections from the World Health Organization indicate that between 2030 and 2050 an additional 250 000 people globally will die of diseases directly linked to climate change, such as diarrhoea, heat stress, malaria, cardiovascular complications, respiratory diseases like asthma, and malnutrition.

While research on the expected impact of climate change on health in South Africa has just begun, international research findings show that it is directly and indirectly linked to an increase in morbidity and mortality, says Prof Caradee Wright from the South African Medical Research Council. Prof Wright, who is a Specialist Scientist from the Environment and Health Research Unit, Climate and Health Research Programme, and will be presenting research findings related to the impact of climate change on health at the upcoming Africa Health Exhibition and Congress.

In Southern Africa, current projections show that by the end of the century temperatures will be around 4°C higher than what is currently being experienced. That is on average 2°C higher than the predicted global increase. With every 1°C rise in temperature, the risk of heat-related conditions such as heat stroke, kidney disease due to dehydration, cardiovascular complications and respiratory conditions increases.

In addition, predicted changes in the frequency and intensity of rainfall could increase the prevalence of infectious diseases from contaminated water such as diarrhoea and water- and vector-borne diseases such as malaria and cholera. This in turn could put more strain on public health care systems in a region that is already struggling with a high burden of existing diseases such as HIV/AIDS, high levels of poverty and food and water challenges.
But, Prof Wright says that the lack of health and climate data in South Africa is hampering efforts to get a clearer idea on the current and future impact of climate change on the country’s health.

“You need decades of climate, morbidity and mortality data before you can confidently determine the impact,” says Prof Wright. “When you look at research based on good data collection over many years in developed countries, the association between an increase in certain health conditions and issues such as higher temperatures becomes clearer.”

In South Africa, government is taking steps to respond to climate change and the associated health risks. In 2014, the Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi signed the National Climate Change and Health Adaptation Plan, drafted by his Department. It identifies potential climate change-related health challenges for the country and strategies to mitigate the health- and associated socio-economic risk factors such as food security, housing and an increase in poverty. A strategy to implement the plan is currently being developed by the Department of
Environmental Affairs in collaboration with the Department of Health and the medical profession, represented by the South African Medical Association’s Environmental and Climate Change Task Team.

However, Prof Wright emphasises that government cannot do it alone. Multi-sectorial cooperation, involving multidisciplinary stakeholders is needed to assist in setting up and implementing adaptation strategies such as early climate warning systems, ensuring that the health system is equipped to deal with an increase in conditions like diarrhoea, heat stress and vector-borne diseases, and educating communities about the potential health risks.

Most importantly, says Prof Wright, is that interventions should focus on the most vulnerable populations – the elderly, young children, people with pre-existing health conditions, poor people in urban and rural areas, and those who are exposed to extremely hot temperatures because of their working conditions.

Prof Wright will be speaking at the Public Health conference, which will form part of the 7th annual Africa Health Exhibition & Congress 2017 taking place from 7-9 June 2017 at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. More than 9,300 regional and international healthcare professionals and medical experts are expected to attend the event.

Africa Health Exhibition and Congress
South African Medical Research
Public Health conference Africa
South African Medical Association



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