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Why climate change affects health

Climate change has direct and indirect effects on health

The effects of climate variability and change are diverse and difficult to predict: while some regions experience heavy rainfall, storms and flooding, others suffer devastating droughts and some face combinations of these phenomena. Changing weather patterns pose a serious threat to people’s health. While extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storms or natural disasters can lead directly to illness, injury or death, most effects of climate change on health are more indirect. For example, climate change affects the availability and quality of the water people need for drinking and for subsistence and commercial farming which, in turn, increases the risk of water- and food-borne diseases and can lead to malnutrition. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns also affect the conditions for mosquitoes to breed, thereby influencing the transmission of vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria.

Vulnerable populations are most affected

Dried field in India
Dried field in India

The impacts of climate change on health are unevenly distributed, both geographically and socially. How severely individuals are affected by climate change depends on local environmental conditions, such as population density and the availability of food and water, and on their socio-economic circumstances, including their financial resources, health status, access to basic services, gender and age. Because already vulnerable populations are more susceptible to the effects of climate change and have limited capacity to adapt to climate-related stress and changes, climate change exacerbates existing socio-economic and health-related challenges.

Communities and health systems need to become more resilient

Whether and how climate change affects people’s health status also depends on the resilience of communities and health systems, i.e. on their capacity to prepare for and flexibly respond to climate-related challenges.  Resilient health systems can adapt to climate-related stress and protect and improve people’s health even in the context of a changing climate. Resilient communities are aware of climate-related health risks, take preventive measures against them and adapt their practices accordingly. Given this, governments should carefully assess and aim to increase community and health system resilience against the effects of climate change.

The time to invest in adaptation measures is now

Girl with mosquito net in Dundube Kadambo, Malawi
Girl with mosquito net in Dundube Kadambo, Malawi

To address the effects of climate variability and change the international community is undertaking both mitigation and adaptation measures. The former are focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while the latter encompass a broad range of measures to deal with effects on specific sectors, such as agriculture or health. Various global financing facilities, including the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and the Adaptation Fund (AF), provide funding for adaptation measures.

About this toolkit

With this set of materials, the toolkit aims to contribute to the evolving knowledge base on health sector responses to climate change.

Related materials and useful tools

© Photoshare / Josh Nesbit
© Photoshare / Dipayan Bhar
© Photoshare / Paul Jeffrey
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