Climate change is having a serious and underestimated impact on the health of pregnant women, children, adolescents, and older adults, says a new collection of research papers published in the Journal of Global Health

These vulnerable populations are often overlooked in climate action plans, despite facing significant health risks from rising temperatures, air pollution, and extreme weather events. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), immediate action is necessary to address these health risks.

The studies highlight the specific vulnerabilities of these groups to various climate hazards, including heat waves, air pollution, and natural disasters.

The research, compiled by experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and international academics, details the specific health threats posed by climate change at various life stages.

Heatwaves: Extreme heat is linked to a rise in preterm births – the leading cause of childhood death. Each degree Celsius increase in minimum daily temperature above 23.9°C is associated with a 22.4% jump in infant mortality risk. Heatwaves can impair cognitive function in children and adolescents while raising the risk of heart attacks and respiratory issues in older adults.

Air Pollution: Air pollution can lead to high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, preterm birth, and harm brain and lung development in fetuses. It also increases the risk of respiratory illness, heart disease, cancer, and pneumonia in children and older adults.

Disasters: Climate-related disasters like floods and droughts disrupt access to clean water and food, leading to malnutrition and increased diarrhoeal diseases. Wildfires are linked to a rise in respiratory illnesses and heart-related deaths among older people.

Beyond Physical Health: Mental health is also impacted. Displacements caused by climate change disrupt access to essential healthcare and social support, particularly for pregnant women, infants, and older adults who may have weaker immune systems and difficulty regulating body temperature.

“These studies demonstrate that climate change is not a distant threat, but a real and present danger to human health, with certain populations suffering disproportionately,” stated Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO. “While awareness is growing, action to safeguard the most vulnerable remains inadequate.”

With 2023 marking the hottest year on record and a string of climate emergencies like wildfires and floods, protecting vulnerable populations from climate change’s health consequences is more urgent than ever, says WHO.

South East Asia Records Highest Climate Deaths: WHO

Southeast Asia, including India, suffers the highest number of climate change-related deaths annually according to the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Southeast Asia, Dr. Saima Wazed.

“This is a worrying reality,” stated Dr. Wazed. “Our region leads the world in deaths attributed to climate change each year.”

Dr. Wazed highlighted the significant threats posed by climate change and biodiversity loss to public health, regional economies, and livelihoods. Environmental degradation, including air and water pollution, coupled with climate change, contributes to a multitude of public health issues. Stronger collaboration between the health and environment sectors is crucial to address these shared challenges.

“SEA Regional Plan of Action for the WHO Global Strategy on Health, Environment and Climate Change 2020-2030: Healthy Environments for Healthier Population” provides a roadmap for the health sector to combat the effects of rising temperatures, Dr. Wazed said.

she calls for integrating health assessments into land-use planning to evaluate potential impacts on air and water quality, food security, and exposure to hazards like drought.

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