World Health Assembly on 2019:  US steps aside on climate change health impacts

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Science Speaks is in Geneva this week covering the 72nd session of the World Health Assembly, May 20-28.

GENEVA – The countries least responsible for climate change are paying the highest price in health impacts, a delegate from Barbados was the first to note here on Thursday. That point was repeated by representatives from more countries in deliberations toward the draft World Health Organization global strategy on health, environment and climate change that also highlighted some of the infectious diseases impacts of climate change and underscored divisions between the United States government and most other participating  countries.

Included in that was a statement* I presented on behalf of the Infectious Diseases Society of America as well as other organizations. Our point — climate change patterns that stand to increase the spread of waterborne, vector-borne and zoonotic infectious diseases, as well as infections related to extreme weather and population displacement. pose urgent threats to public health. Major storms and rising sea levels can lead to outbreaks of cholera and leptospirosis. Mosquitos and ticks are spreading, placing new populations at risk of dengue, Zika and Lyme disease. Influenza strains are increasingly diverse as animals, vectors and humans are forced into closer contact. Whenever large groups of people are forced to migrate (due to natural disasters, for example) incidence of respiratory infections increases. Countries that include Barbados, Bahamas, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, Mozambique, Seychelles Namibia, and the United Kingdom raised similar concerns, many noting that island and developing nations are at greatest risks for many of these consequences  — often with the  fewest resources to prepare and respond.

Most countries at this event explicitly expressed concern about the impact of climate change on health, the US rejected the  term  “climate change” and instead recognized the link between health, the environment and climate.  Country delegates expressed support for a multi-sectoral approach to address environmental determinants of health, including climate change.  The Netherlands was represented by its youth delegate, a medical student, who lamented the burning of fossil fuels and made a passionate plea for health sector leadership to address climate change.  The US, in contrast, urged  the WHO to more narrowly focus on health areas more traditionally within its scope.

There appeared to be universal support for efforts to strengthen health  system resiliency to  deal with environmental impacts on health, such as natural disasters, a key focus of the WHO global  strategy.  Delegates emphasized the need for  financial support to help low income countries with this effort.  The strategy also calls for health sector leadership and underscores the need to address the  root causes of climate change and other environmental hazards.  Countries, that included Vietnam and Peru, noted that they are already working to implement “greener” policies.

Ultimately, representatives of the assembled nations agreed to request that the Director-General report back on progress in the implementation of the WHO global strategy to the Seventy-fourth World Health Assembly. Delegates also  noted that the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will host the 2019 Climate Action Summit on 23 September, and urged that the health impacts of climate change be a central focus of this event.

Amanda Jezek is senior vice president at the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which produces this blog.

*IDSA is presenting four statements at the World Health Assembly. The statement on health, environment and climate change is the second one down, at this link. Other statements addressed public health emergencies, the global health threat of antimicrobial resistance, and tuberculosis.

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