In an article appearing in the summer issue of Global Health
, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), brings to light what she calls the starkest statistic in public health
: the vast difference in the mortality rates between rich and poor countries. For example, the life expectancy of a girl
is doubled if she is born in a developed country rather than in a developing country. Chan writes that efforts to improve health in developing countries now face an additional obstacle: “a climate that has begun to change.”
Climate change’s effect on health has increasingly moved into the spotlight over the past year: DARA’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor measures the toll that climate change took in 2010 on human health, estimating some 350,000 people died last year from diseases related to climate change. The majority of these deaths took place in sub-Saharan Africa, where weak health systems already struggle to deal with the disproportionate disease burden found in the region. The loss of “healthy life years” as a result of global environmental change is predicted to be 500 times greater in poor African populations than in European populations, according to The Lancet.
The majority of these deaths are due to climate change exacerbating already-prominent diseases and conditions, including malaria, diarrhea, and malnutrition. Environmental changes affect disease patterns and people’s access to food, water, sanitation, and shelter. The DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor predicts that these effects will cause the number of deaths related to climate change to rise to 840,000 per year by 2030.
But few of these will be in developed countries. With strong health systems in place, they are not likely to feel the toll of a changing environment on their health. Reducing these inequities can only be achieved by alleviating poverty, which increases the capacity of individuals, their countries, and entire regions to adapt to climate change. It would be in all of our interests to do just this, writes Chan: “A world that is greatly out of balance is neither stable nor secure.”
Sarah Lindsay is a program assistant at the Ministerial Leadership Initiative for Global Health and a Masters candidate at American University.
Sources: DARA, Global Health, The Lancet, World Health Organization.
Image Credit: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the World Health Organization.