Climate change will impact on health in Asia, scientists say


Tue, Jul 03, 2007 - Page 1

Rising temperatures are expected to have a huge impact on the health of people in the Asia-Pacific region, causing spikes in everything from dengue fever to food poisoning, scientists said yesterday.

Delegates at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, painted a bleak future for the health of those living in the world's most populous region if steps are not taken now to address climate change.

Scientists said drought will lead to lower crop yields and higher malnutrition in some areas, dust storms and wildfires will result in more respiratory illnesses and flooding from severe storms will increase injuries, drowning and disease.

"We have now reached a critical stage at which global warming has already seriously impacted the lives and health of the people," said Shigeru Omi, director of the WHO's Western Pacific region.

"This problem will pose an even greater threat to mankind in coming decades if we fail to act now," Omi said.

Conference delegates, including officials from 16 countries, said it is important for policy-makers to understand the link between greenhouse gas emissions and health.

They called on countries to devote more resources to address health issues already plaguing the region to help lessen the blow as the effects of climate change become more dire. Tax incentives and pricing policies were encouraged to get companies to become more environmentally friendly.

The Asia-Pacific region is already feeling the effects of global warming, with climate change directly or indirectly linked to some 77,000 deaths each year in the region -- about half the global total of deaths blamed on climate change, the WHO said.

Those figures do not include deaths linked to air pollution, which alone kills more than 400,000 people annually in China. Last month, China passed the US to become the largest greenhouse gas emitter, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency said.

Omi pointed to heat-related deaths in Shanghai jumping three times above the norm in 1998 when a massive summer heat wave drove temperatures to about 40oC.

In Singapore, the city-state has seen a correlation between rising temperatures and the number of dengue fever cases reported, with mean annual temperatures climbing from 26.9oC in 1978 to 28.4oC 20 years later. Dengue fever cases jumped 10 fold during that time, he said.

In addition, malaria has recently reached Bhutan and new areas in Papua New Guinea for the first time. In the past, mosquitoes that spread the disease were unable to breed in the cooler climates there, but warmer temperatures have allowed them to flourish.

The meeting comes two months after the third in a series of major climate change reports was released in Bangkok by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN network of 2,000 scientists.

The four-day workshop in Malaysia laid the groundwork for a ministerial-level meeting on the topic next month in Bangkok.

The section of the IPCC report devoted to health says food and water supplies will be hit by global warming, with the poorest countries in Asia and Africa expected to suffer the most.