Message of the Regional Director on the Occasion of World Health Day

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The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change describes climate change as "a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods." The change in climate and effects on the environment are aggravated by the emission of greenhouse gases from use of fossil fuels and inappropriate technologies.

Climate change is one of the most critical global challenges of our time. It is an emerging threat to health security and puts an additional pressure on public health systems worldwide and even more so in the developing countries of the world. That is why the theme for World Health Day 2008 is "Protecting health from climate change".

Climate change has a number of devastating effects that endanger the life of people in different ways. It causes a rise in sea levels, accelerates the erosion of coastal zones, increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and accelerates the extinction of species. The impact on human health is even greater. There is evidence that the distribution of epidemics is changing in a pattern that is compatible with changes in the environment.

It is hypothesized that climate change directly contributes to changes in the geographic distribution of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and the occurrence of epidemics of meningococcal meningitis, Rift Valley fever and cholera in previously unaffected areas. For example, the geographic distribution of meningococcal meningitis appears to be expanding from the usual meningitis belt to the southern African Region.

Waterborne diseases and epidemics of acute diarrhoea are rampant in flood situations. Climate change contributes to frequent droughts and floods which seriously affect food production. As a result, the nutritional status of the populations of many countries in the African Region is worsening.

The African Region is likely to be most affected by the impact of climate change, especially the health-related impact. In most countries in the WHO African Region, strengthening of health systems remains a major development challenge, and national health services face increasing demands for preventive and curative services partly as a result of the increased burden of diseases related to climate change. Malaria epidemics in the highlands of some countries and increased mortality due to repetitive floods in other countries provide ample evidence of how climate affects health.

Protecting health from climate change requires proactive action to address the current deficiencies in health protection systems and the additional health security risk management challenges. WHO is preparing a global strategy and action plan to support Member States in developing their capacity for effective interventions to mitigate the impact of climate change.

In the African Region, the priority will be to support countries to develop their capacities to assess and manage the adverse health impact of climate change. Strengthened research and surveillance are key to identifying threats, understanding impacts and proposing effective adaptation strategies. Because health systems form the first line of defence against climate-related health risks, it is important to strengthen health systems. More specifically, countries can improve health care services by revitalizing primary health care to reach vulnerable populations; adopting health promotion policies and strategies; and encouraging individuals and communities to adopt environment-friendly technologies.

Every country, every community and every individual can contribute, daily, to mitigate climate change. We all need to know and understand why climate is changing and what everyone can do collectively to protect our health from climate change.

I thank you.

Dr Luis G. Sambo

WHO Regional Director for Africa