8 July 2014

Africa: UN Moves to Bring Climate Information Into Health Planning

The World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization have created a joint office to prepare better for weather-driven health emergencies and shifting outbreaks of climate-linked diseases such as cholera and dengue fever.

The new office aims to bridge the gap between the health and climate services communities, which have not communicated well in the past, the two U.N. agencies said. It comes in response to health-sector demand for better access to regional climate predictions, hazard warnings and seasonal weather outlooks needed to manage health risks.

"Climate change is leading to an increase in extreme events such as heatwaves and heavy rains which have a major impact on human health," said World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Michel Jarraud in a statement. "We need to have a common understanding of the challenges we face in order to overcome them."

Climate change threatens a wide range of worsening problems for health, from the geographical spread of diseases like malaria and dengue, to growing heat stress, food shortages, air pollution and psychological pressures.

DUST AND MENINGITIS

Examples of initiatives already underway include sand and dust forecasts being used in the Sahel to target meningitis vaccination drives, and drawing on seasonal climate outlooks to plan malaria control campaigns.

Dr Flavia Bustreo, World Health Organization (WHO) assistant director-general for family, women and children's health, said millions of people are affected by extreme weather events each year, including heat and cold waves, storms, floods and droughts. These can damage or destroy health facilities and water and sanitation infrastructure, and cause unnecessary deaths and illness.

"Yet the most significant impacts often occur indirectly and more slowly, such as under-nutrition resulting from crop failure, respiratory diseases from poor air quality, and water-borne and vector-borne diseases. Climate-informed preparedness and prevention can greatly reduce these health risks," Bustreo said.

The joint office will help achieve the goals of the Global Framework for Climate Services, an international initiative to improve and expand climate and weather services such as seasonal forecasts and drought monitoring, and support their use by agencies working on health, food security, water and disaster risk reduction.

The office will make sure the potential contribution of meteorological services is put on the agenda in international health policy meetings, such as the World Health Assembly and a WHO conference on health and climate next month. It will also propose a roadmap for the WMO and meteorological community to assist the health sector in using climate information and services.

The office will support demonstration projects and research, beginning with efforts in Malawi and Tanzania to improve collaboration between health partners and national meteorological departments. And it will develop awareness-raising and technical materials, such as the 2012 Atlas of Health and Climate published by WHO and WMO, and upcoming guidance on early warning systems for heat and health.

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