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Climate change and the significant seven

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As a title, The Significant Seven may conjure up a raft of possibilities. Of westerns and cowboys, of Enid Blyton books or who knows what else.

But it’s actually how the World Health Organization has just described the gravest public health threats climate change poses to this country.

As listed by the WHO they are;

  • An increase in heat-related illness and death – suggesting that the 2003 heatwave which caused 2,000 excess deaths in England Wales, will be a ‘normal heatwave' by 2040
  • More flood-related illness and displacement – as well as injury and infection, the effect of flooding on mental health will be considerable.
  • An increase in food, water and vector-borne disease – higher temperatures will mean more drought, more flooding and changes in patterns of disease with an increase in tropical diseases.
  • Increased levels of air pollution – prevalence of ozone, fine particles (PM10 and PM2.5) and even extended pollen seasons, all of which could increase levels of respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
  • Skin cancer and sunburn – malignant melanoma has increased by 78% among men and 48% among women from 2003 to 2012. It is now the fifth most common cancer in England and is expected to continue rising as people spend more time outdoors due to warmer weather.
  • Pressure on healthcare providers to keep services running in extreme weather – flooding, storms and wildfires are all set to become more common under future climate forecasts and they will all impact critical infrastructure (e.g. water supply, electricity, hospital services).
  • An increase in health inequalities – increased fuel and food prices and a reduction in access to heating, cooling, insurance and green spaces will all impact those who may already be disadvantaged.

All of the issues are detailed in the Climate and Health Country Profiles which set out what the issues are and what progress each nation profiled has made in tackling the range of issues that they face.

Of course none of these topics are particularly new to us here at Public Health England. Our 2012 assessment of the Health Effects of Climate Change laid out a very similar list of threats and ever since we have focussed our attention, in both research and supporting relevant policy development, to ensure that the UK is as ready as it can be for the ill-effects climate change will bring.

Pleasingly the report also details the many things that the UK has done on this front.

That ranges all the way from the development of tools and strategies to monitor the health sector’s carbon footprint through to support for the Climate Change Risk Assessment and research on climate change and the mental health effects of flooding. It even acknowledges the contribution this blog is making in driving public health professionals’ awareness of the issues around climate change.

But it also reminds us that we in public health have vital roles to play in helping to shape policies, at local, national and international level, to mitigate the effects of climate change.

As the report highlights there are many policy areas in which our influence can be felt, be it improvements to energy efficiencies in housing, changing diets so they are more ‘climate friendly’ and changing the ways we look at, and use, various forms of transport, including boosting rates of walking and cycling. If we’re clever about this we will not only tackle some of the drivers of climate change, such as emissions of greenhouse gases, but also improve public health while doing it.

And if we manage it then I suspect our next WHO climate health card will look even better.

Image: Matthew Roth

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