Climate Health Research Blind Spots Threaten WHO’s Climate Agenda, Experts Warn
As the World Health Organization moves to put climate and health at the centre of its work, experts say research gaps could threaten its ability to act effectively.

GENEVA – The World Health Organization has made climate change its top priority in its four-year work plan adopted at the World Health Assembly this week, but significant gaps in climate health research could hinder the UN health body’s efforts, experts warned at the Geneva Health Forum on Wednesday.

Current research on the effects of climate change on health is heavily skewed towards the global north and China, while countries most vulnerable to climate change, such as Small Island Developing States, remain understudied. Additionally, most studies focus on the direct health effects of climate phenomena, overlooking the impact on non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which are the primary drivers of the global disease burden.

“Most of the research has been focused on temperature-related health risks and hazards followed by infectious diseases,” said Dr Ming Yang, Senior Editor at Nature Medicine. “There’s been very little research when it comes to other health outcomes like NCDs, maternal and child health, mental health, the impact of climate change on healthcare systems, extreme weather events and on diets and food security.”

The health implications of climate change on NCDs range from mental health stresses caused by extreme weather to increased cardiovascular diseases from wildfire smoke, malnutrition from droughts, and increased risk of vector-borne diseases. The WHO recently acknowledged an insufficient understanding of the impacts of climate change on malaria and other neglected tropical diseases.

Climate change can affect many of the leading risk factors for premature deaths, such as malnutrition, air pollution, high blood pressure, tobacco use, unhealthy diets, high blood sugar, obesity, high cholesterol, kidney dysfunction, and occupational hazards, according to The Lancet. As the global health burden of NCDs continues its rise, experts at the Forum highlighted the crucial importance of expanding climate research to explore its impact on these illnesses. 

“No one is talking about obesity, heart disease – the real disease burdens,” said Dr Anders Nordström, Former Ambassador for Global Health at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. “We are not getting it right with the epidemiology.”

Recent decades have seen a sharp rise in the number of nations facing severe threats from climate change and its health repercussions.

Ahead of the World Health Assembly, the WHO noted that published research on climate and health has too often focused on “low-disease burden countries with high access to quality healthcare”, while the world’s poorest nations, most at risk for climate disasters according to the IPCC, have seen little research quantifying the health effects of climate change.

“Climate change is not just about heat waves,” Yang emphasized. “It’s about extreme weather events like wildfires, floods, and tropical cyclones. It’s also about the increasing damages of air pollution. We are only beginning to understand the chronic health impacts of climate change on cardiovascular and respiratory disease, renal and neurological outcomes, and especially mental health.”

The disparity in climate health research becomes even more pronounced when examining climate adaptation versus mitigation. A recent WHO review found that a mere 34% of malaria and NTD studies addressed mitigation strategies, while only 5% explored adaptation methods.

This adaptation deficit mirrors the broader global climate action landscape, as affluent nations fail to fulfill their commitments to assist climate-vulnerable regions in adapting to a warming world.

Developing countries received just $21 billion in international financial flows for climate adaptation in 2021, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). However, UNEP estimates that these nations need between $194 billion and $366 billion per year for adaptation alone. With the climate crisis escalating, the funding gap is expected to increase even more.

The WHO’s GPW-14 plan, which sets climate and health as its centrepiece while funding the UN health body’s global activities from emergency response to a full range of health issues, brings the financial scope of the climate challenge into perspective. With a target budget of $11.1 billion, the WHO has secured only $4 billion and plans to raise the rest at a late 2024 fundraiser.

“Clearly climate change is the most important crisis,” said Maria Neira Director of the Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health Department at the WHO, “Now, what’s next?”

Image Credits: Matt Howard/ Unslash.

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