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Climate change's health toll: 'We can save millions of lives, even now'

While the effects of climate change on the environment are gaining wide attention, there's a lack of awareness about the impact on human health. The WHO's Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum tells DW how both can be adressed.

DW: How much of a threat is climate change to human health?

As the earth warms, it makes it easier to transmit diseases in many parts of the world - diseases like malaria, which kills around 600,000 people every year, or diarrheal disease, including cholera and other forms of diarrhea, which also kills almost 600,000 just children every year, particularly in developing countries. And as we get more frequent precipitation, perhaps more frequent flooding and drought, it makes it harder to supply safe water sanitation services to populations.

We are also going to get more frequent and severe heat waves, particularly in the cities. And we know that heat waves can kill thousands of people, even tens of thousands of people: The record heat wave that occurred in Europe in 2003 was responsible for about 70,000 deaths. The more that we let climate change progress, the more that we find that parts of the world are unfit for safe human habitation.

What do you hope to achieve at the conference?

Most of the discussion up to now has been about the impact of climate change on ice caps or on polar bears. That's very important, but for us, the most important species threatened by climate change is human beings.

The second message is that, climate change, unless we control it, is going to continue to increase threats to human health. So we have to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Another important message is that there's a great deal we can do about this. Many of the threats that climate change presents to health can actually be controlled through better public health measures - better water supply and sanitation systems, better surveillance and control of infectious diseases.

Dr. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum

Dr. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum

And the final point, which is a critically important one, is that many of the things we need to do to reduce our impact on the global climate would bring immediate and large health benefit. At the moment, over seven million people each year die from air pollution. And the source of that air pollution is in many cases the same things that are also driving climate change. It's the burning of fossil fuels and the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. Approximately one in eight deaths around the world is attributed to air pollution. If we're able to shift to cleaner energy sources, if were able to provide more sustainable transport systems, we can both reduce our impact on the global climate and save millions of lives, even now.

Are there examples of countries employing healthy strategies which could be duplicated elsewere?

Countries from Bhutan to Kenya, to countries in central and eastern Europe are analyzing the risks that climate change poses to health, weather it's heat waves or water shortages and so on, and they're implementing the measure that need to be implemented to protect people's health. They're generating heat wave warning systems that alert populations when temperatures are going to be too hot to go outside safely.

On the other side, there are some important new initiatives, such as the climate and clean air coalition, which brings together 70 countries, UN agencies and other partners, including WHO, to share strategies on how they can both reduce air pollution and cut climate change.

Do you see this conference taking place on a regular basis?

Well, I think this is the first step in the process.

Next month, in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will hold a climate summit, and we will also be ensuring that the messages come from the health community into the climate change negotiations happening at the end of this year - and then hopefully leading up to a strong climate change agreement in Paris at the end of 2015.

Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum leads the climate change and health team at the WHO and has played key roles in developing the first quantitative estimates of the overall health impacts of climate change.

The three-day Conference on Health & Climate is currently underway at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

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