With the recent alternation of cool nights and then hot, rainy weather, I am sure like me many of you or someone close to you may have caught the cold and flu. Without letting the common cold get the best of me, I made my way to Lautoka to find out how climate change relates to our health.
Hang on, climate change affecting my health?
“Yes, it most certainly does,” say the regional experts and participants who had gathered at the Pacific Regional Climate Change and Health Symposium which was hosted by the University of Fiji at its Saweni Campus from September 13-15.
With the backdrop of the university’s medical school on the campus, the three-day meet was graced by academics, students, medical and environmental health practitioners and climate change educators from 17 regional countries.
Project Survival Pacific’s newly launched Train-A-Climate Negotiator (TaCN) Program leaders were also part of this symposium and contributed to the discussions on adaptive improvements that could be made to better equip the health sector in climate-related responses.
Climate change causes an alteration in rainfall patterns and also intensifies the extreme whether events such as tropical depressions and cyclones.
“Change in rainfall patterns will affect the increase of vectors for dengue fever and malaria,” said Ms Jane Wallace from the World Health Organisation.
Fiji’s Minister of Health Dr Neil Sharma reported to the symposium that the likelihood of dengue, leptospirosis, typhoid fever and diarrhoea outbreak had increased tenfold after extreme weather events like tropical depressions and flooding seen in Fiji earlier this year. He says flooding brings communicable diseases to those affected.
“There were serious outbreaks of communicable diseases in Fiji following the floods. Malnutrition and strangely STIs coupled with the lack of food supply were also noticeable.”
Why should we even care about climate change and health impacts?
Although climate change is going to impact significantly on public health sector, knowledge of how to effectively manage such challenges is still something not fully understood by health practitioners as well as the general public in the Pacific.
Climate change undermines the environmental determinants of health. “Public health and livelihoods depend on environmental health,” Aaron Jenkins from Wetland International-Oceania told the symposium.
Weather and climate play a significant role in people’s health. Changes in climate affect the average weather conditions that we are accustomed to. Warmer average temperatures will likely lead to hotter days and more frequent and longer heat waves. This could increase the number of heat-related illnesses and deaths.
Without effective responses, climate change will compromise water quality and quantity, food security, control of infectious disease and protection from disasters. Some of the largest existing disease burdens are climate-sensitive. For example, under nutrition, diarrhoea, Malaria, and extreme weather events kill 3.5 million, 2.2 million, 900,000 and 60,000 respectively each year.
Here in Fiji, dengue fever, diarrhoeal diseases (food and water borne) and nutrition-related illnesses were all shown to be linked to climate and have the potential to worsen with increasing climate change and variability.
Climate change is expected to impact dengue fever by increasing the frequency of epidemics, as well as the possibility that a larger proportion of the population will be affected by each epidemic. Improper water storage practices in water-stricken areas have also been associated with an increase in mosquito breeding sites and the risk for related diseases.
Diarrhoeal disease may become more common if Fiji becomes warmer and wetter, and if droughts and tropical cyclones occur more frequently, disrupting water supplies and sanitation systems.
Nutrition-related illnesses are most likely to be affected by increases in frequency and/or magnitude of tropical cyclone and drought events. Further, it is also likely that if climate change leads to economic and social disruption and environmental degradation, there may be serious negative effects on health.
A week ago AlertNet — an award winning humanitarian news service — reported that malnutrition is likely to be the most serious health threat linked to climate shifts in the coming decades, as farmers struggle to cope with more unpredictable weather.
Malnutrition is already an underlying cause of about half of nine million annual child deaths and with 85 per cent of the health impacts of climate change estimated to hit children, they will be highly vulnerable.
One major problem is that those likely to face the biggest health challenges from climate change also have the fewest resources to prepare. In addition, preparedness efforts need to be integrated with development plans or the effectiveness of the actions we take will remain limited.
One of the issues highlighted by the regional participants at the symposium in Lautoka was the inability of health departments in Pacific countries to successfully implement their climate change related health programs.
Dr Sharma also raised this concern for Fiji. He said: “We are robust in our strategic planning. However, getting it down to the grassroots level is the difficulty.”
So the question that also arises is “Adaptation: What does it mean and how do we do it?”
The discussions pointed out that adaptation to climate change-related health impacts is not an entirely new concept that needs to be taught to people but rather built on the existing knowledge and systems such as traditional knowledge, food security, weather events and making better use of health records.
A need to improve workforce capacity by starting from grassroots level and including the students was also identified.
The symposium was the first of its kind in Fiji looking at ways to prevent climate change from having an adverse effect on the health of the people. It did a pretty good job in kicking off the much needed dialogues around health impacts of climate change and the organisers must be commended for this.
The symposium yielded a set of recommendations and priority areas for health sector to improve on. One thing really clear is that more of such discussions need to happen which not only includes the people in the health sector but also the economists, environmentalists, the development agencies, the youth and most importantly, the grassroots people.
* Krishneil Narayan is the director of Project Survival Pacific — Fiji’s Youth Climate Change Movement. For further information and clarification e-mail email@example.com.