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Published: 17:50, December 03, 2023 | Updated: 18:01, December 03, 2023
How climate change is making the world sick
By Reuters
Published:17:50, December 03, 2023 Updated:18:01, December 03, 2023 By Reuters

A worker sprays mosquito repellent as part of a prevention campaign against dengue fever in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on Oct 27, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

DUBAI - Heat stress. Lung damage from wildfire smoke. The spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes into new regions as temperatures rise.

These are just a few of the ways that public health has been impacted and compounded by climate change - a focus for the first time ever at the annual UN climate summit COP28.

Government ministers are expected to discuss at COP28 ways they can protect people from climate-driven health threats, which now threaten to undo decades of progress in public health

Government ministers are expected to discuss ways they can protect people from climate-driven health threats, which now threaten to undo decades of progress in public health.

ALSO READ: Developed nations urged to cover costs of climate change

From 2030, experts expect that just four of these threats - malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress - will push global death tolls up by 250,000 per year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

"Extreme weather events are becoming extreme health events," said Martin Edlund, CEO of global health nonprofit Malaria No More.

Here's how climate change is harming people's health across the world today, and what countries might expect in the future.

Vector-borne diseases

Mosquitoes that carry viruses including dengue, malaria, West Nile and Zika are shifting into new parts of the world as warmer temperatures and heavy rains create more hospitable conditions for them to breed.

Just this year, dengue cases in Brazil are up 73 percent against the five-year average, said Edlund, with Bangladesh suffering a record outbreak

Just this year, dengue cases in Brazil are up 73 percent against the five-year average, said Edlund, with Bangladesh suffering a record outbreak.

Climate change is also having an unpredictable impact on malaria, with 5 million more cases registered in 2022 than the previous year - reaching a total of 249 million, the WHO's World Malaria Report found.

ALSO READ: WHO: World at risk of losing malaria fight as cases rise

Floods in Pakistan last year, for example, led to a 400 percent increase in malaria cases in the country, the report said.

The disease has also spread into the highlands of Africa that previously had been cold for mosquitoes.

Two new malaria vaccines expected to be available next year offer some hope of combating the scourge.

Murky waters

Storms and flooding wrought by climate change are allowing other infectious water-borne diseases to proliferate as well.

After decades of progress against cholera, an intestinal infection spread by contaminated food and water, case numbers are rising again, including in countries that had all but extirpated the disease.

Without treatment, cholera can kill within hours.

A nurse administers the cholera vaccine to a child in Sudan's Gedaref city on November 20, 2023, during a vaccination campaign to reduce the cholera epidemic in war-torn Sudan. (PHOTO / AFP)

In 2022, 44 countries reported cholera cases, a 25 percent increase over 2021, according to the WHO, which noted the role played by cyclones, floods, and drought in cutting off access to clean water and helping bacteria to thrive.

Recent outbreaks have also been far deadlier, with fatality rates now at the highest recorded level in over a decade, the WHO said.

ALSO READ: COP28 spotlights global warnings about climate change pain

Diarrhoea, too, receives a boost from climate change, with increasingly erratic rainfall - resulting in either wet or dry conditions - yielding a higher risk, research has found.

Diarrhoea is the world's second leading cause of death among children under 5, after pneumonia, claiming the lives of more than half a million kids every year.

Extreme heat and smoky skies

Heat stress - one of the more obvious health impacts of global warming - is projected to impact hundreds of millions of people as temperatures continue to climb through the next few decades.

With the world already about 1.1 C (2 F) warmer than the average preindustrial temperature, people in 2022 experienced about 86 days on average of dangerously high temperatures, a report from the Lancet medical journal found last month.

READ MORE: Climate change among biggest health threats

If the world warms by 2 C above preindustrial levels, the report said, yearly heat deaths could more than quadruple.

A July study in the journal Nature Medicine estimated that some 61,000 people died during European heatwaves in the summer of 2022.The heat has also made forests drier, fueling extreme wildfires that have swept across large swathes of the world in recent years.

Firefighters and residents try to extinguish a fire in the city of Canakkale, northwest Türkiye, on Aug 23, 2023. (PHOTO / AP)

During the decade starting in 2010, more than 2 billion people were exposed to at least one day per year of unhealthy air pollution from fire smoke, according to a September study in the journal Nature. That was up by 6.8 percent compared with the previous decade.

In the United States, wildfire air pollution now kills somewhere between 4,000 and 28,000 people annually, according to the American Thoracic Society.

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