Changes in climate and extreme conditions can result in disease outbreaks and epidemics like malaria and cholera that cause death and suffering to millions. Other examples include outbreaks of dengue after heavy rains, and sharp rises in meningitis cases following dust storms.
Published jointly by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the Atlas gives practical examples of how using information about climate and weather can protect public health.
The Atlas is part of a wider initiative in the UN to strengthen the use of climate services to benefit people, especially the most vulnerable. The health sector is one of four priorities in the initiative, the other three being food security, water management, and disaster risk reduction.
In a press statement issued to coincide with the launch of the Atlas at an Extraordinary Session of the World Meteorological Congress, being held in Geneva, Switzerland, this week, Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, says:
"Climate has a profound impact on the lives, and survival, of people. Climate services can have a profound impact on improving these lives, also through better health outcomes."
"Prevention and preparedness are the heart of public health. Risk management is our daily bread and butter. Information on climate variability and climate change is a powerful scientific tool that assists us in these tasks," says Chan.
Public health management has not made as much use of climate services as it could, suggest the agencies.
WMO Secretary-General Mr Michel Jarraud describes the Atlas as an "innovative and practical example" of how meteorological and health communities can work together to ensure "up-to-date, accurate and relevant information on weather and climate is integrated into public health management at international, national and local levels".
Examples of Links Between Climate and HealthA range of graphs, tables, maps and texts in the Atlas serve to show numerous links between climate and health, and how they may be used, such as:
- Managing endemic infectious diseases: In some parts of the world, cases of infectious diseases like malaria, dengue, meningitis and cholera can vary by a factor of 100 and more between seasons, and significantly from year to year, depending on weather and climate. In countries where these diseases are endemic, stronger use of climate services could help predict the start, duration and strength of such epidemics.
- Improved early warning systems already saving lives: Case studies describe how by working more closely together, meteorological, emergency and health services, are already saving more lives. One example shows how such collaboration, with the help of improved early warning systems and preparedness, has brought down deaths following cyclones in Bangladesh from around half a million in 1970, to 140,000 in 1991, to 3,000 in 2007.
- Protecting vulnerable groups in extreme weather: Working together, climate and health services can put in place measures to better protect vulnerable groups during periods of extreme weather. For example, by the middle of this century, heat extremes that we are used to expecting once every 20 years, are predicted to be happening every 2 to 5 years. At the same time, the proportion of older people living in cities worldwide will go up by a factor of four, from 380 million today to 1.4 billion in 2050. This is one of the most vulnerable groups to heat stress.
- Monitoring air pollution and effects on health: making greater use of clean energy for homes would reduce climate change and through cleaner air save the lives of about 680,000 children a year.
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD