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BMJ. 2007 April 14; 334(7597): 768.
PMCID: PMC1852031

Climate change is likely to affect the health of millions, report warns

The health status of “millions of people” will be affected by climate change in the years ahead, concludes the latest authoritative report from a United Nations international panel of scientists and policy makers.

The study, which was based on five years of detailed scientific research around the world, paints a graphic picture of the environmental consequences of a continuing increase in the earth's temperature. These range from major water shortages and migration from coastal regions as sea levels rise to hunger and the potential disappearance of up to 30% of plant and animal species.

“The poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people in prosperous societies, are going to be worst hit and are the most vulnerable. Poor people are the least equipped to adapt to climate change, so there is a global responsibility,” said Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the UN's intergovernmental panel on climate change.

The 23 page summary for policy makers agreed by the panel's working group last week after four days of talks in Brussels is the outcome of a drastic distillation of the 1572 pages of scientific evidence charting, for the first time, the effects of climate change on every region of the world.

It warns that “projected climate change-related exposures are likely to affect the health status of millions of people, particularly those with low adaptive capacity.” It points to a rise in malnutrition and consequent disorders, with implications for children's growth and development.

Heat waves, floods, storms, fires, and drought will bring more mortality, disease, and injuries and a greater incidence of diarrhoeal disease. The 35 000 deaths that resulted from the heat wave in Europe in the summer of 2003 “are the first alarming example” of the possible shape of things to come, says the World Health Organization's Regional Office for Europe, which coordinated the health chapter of the panel's report.

Bettina Menne, a WHO specialist and the chapter's lead author, said that 150 000 deaths could be “attributed directly” to climate change in 2000 alone from malnutrition and diarrhoea.

The study predicts an increase in the incidence of cardiorespiratory diseases, because of higher concentrations of ground level ozone, and forecasts changes in the geographical distribution of some infectious diseases.

The panel acknowledges that climate change could bring some benefits, notably fewer deaths from exposure to cold, but concludes that these will be outweighed by “the negative health effects of rising temperatures world-wide, especially in developing countries.”

Commenting on the study, WHO called on countries to plan adaptation measures to reduce the effects of climate change. It pointed to the need to strengthen existing public health approaches to disease control and health protection, to anticipation and early detection of potential effects, and to provide information to the public and health professionals.

Notes

The summary for policy makers is available at www.ipcc.ch.


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