EARTH Thailand

‘Climate change a global health risk’

The Nation 10 September 2018 | PRATCH RUJIVANAROM


CLIMATE CHANGE is causing serious health threats and is capable of triggering a deadly global pandemic, doctors have warned.

Preventive healthcare promotion, strengthening of the health system and stabilising the rising global temperature were urgently required to mitigate the impacts of climate change on health and prevent a possible global pandemic, experts said. 

They expressed their concern after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Bangkok ended yesterday.

Conference participants failed to make serious progress in advancing efforts to step up implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and leading medical experts warned that the impacts of climate change on people’s health were already visible and unless climate-stabilisation goals were achieved, humankind could face immense heath threats.

The WHO said in reports that environmental degradation and ecological shifts caused by climate change had already aggravated various health problems. These include a surge in heat-related morbidity and increases in respiratory, vector-borne and water-borne diseases, which endanger lives and levy a severe financial burden.

The WHO warned that if there were no implementation of prevention and mitigation measures, health hazards from climate change would claim 250,000 lives annually and cost an additional US$4 billion (Bt128 billion) in health expenditures.

According to the WHO’s health-risks projection in a “business-as-usual” scenario, in which greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the planet would be 4.3 degrees Celsius warmer than in the pre-industrial era by 2100.

The WHO warned that extreme heat waves and wildfires would become common events during the summer, contributing to higher heat-related mortality, especially in the mid-latitude regions, while more frequent wildfires and hotter climate would aggravate air pollution, increasing respiratory diseases.

Though the impacts from heat wave were smaller for Thailand, it was estimated that the hotter weather would harm vulnerable population groups such as children, the elderly and outdoor workers. The WHO estimates that heat-related mortality among the Thai elderly will increase to 58 deaths per 100,000 population by 2080.

Dr Thiravat Hemachudha, head of Chulalongkorn University’s Emerging Infectious Disease Health Science Centre, stressed that climate change not only increased transmission rates and the severity of known infectious diseases, but the ecological changes from rising global temperature could also spawn new harmful diseases.

Dengue, malaria concerns

“Climate change is creating a suitable environment for diseases to develop and spread because the warmer climate enables the propagation of tropical-disease vectors and allows them to expand into colder regions, allowing widespread and higher transmission rates of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue,” Thiravat said.

According to the WHO’s estimates, the population at risk of contracting malaria could increase from 60 million people per year to more than 71 million in 2070.

A higher dengue transmission rate has already been noticed in Thailand. Disease Control Department statistics show that, as of the end of August, 50,070 dengue cases were observed – a 50.5-per-cent increase over the same period last year. 

Mahidol University’s Centre of Excellence on Environmental Health and Toxicology has estimated that the number of dengue sufferers in Thailand would surge to 170,280 cases per year by the end of this century, which is double the 2006 baseline figure of 66,200 cases per year.

Thiravat cautioned that the warmer and wetter environment caused by global warming was also providing favourable conditions for microbial pathogens to thrive and evolve into new contagious diseases,

“Microbial pathogens are also living organisms, so they have the ability to mutate and constantly evolve to ensure the survival of their species,” he explained.

“My main concern is that climate change has opened up a large opportunity for these microbes to evolve into new strains of infectious diseases, which could be very contagious and cause a global pandemic.”

However, he pointed out that humanity also has the ability to cope with imminent challenges by building up a strong health system, encouraging preventive medical care, and strengthening climate resilience and mitigation measures. 

“If a person is healthy and has a strong immune system, it will be hard for him to catch a flu. The same principle applies to a country’s ability to prepare for emerging health risks – if our citizens are healthy, the country would be safer from outbreaks,” he added.

As the Bangkok talks attempted to breathe life into the Paris Agreement, tens of thousands of people around the world took to the streets on Saturday to demand that governments take action against climate change, AFP reported.

Nearly 1,000 events were organised in 100 countries as part of the “Rise for Climate” protest movement that called on countries to end their reliance on fossil fuels and transition fully into renewable energy. 

About 200 protesters assembled in front of the UN regional headquarters in Bangkok where delegates were discussing how to implement Paris Accord measures.

Developing countries rounded on the US and its allies at emergency climate talks yesterday, accusing the world’s richest nations of stalling a deal aimed at preventing runaway global warming. Delegates ended their talks yesterday with an agreement to hand over technical discussions to a panel of experts, who will continue to meet before the COP 24 kicks off in Katowice, Poland, in December.