Health Sector is ‘Ill-Prepared’ to Protect People Against Heat and Other Extreme Weather Events


People’s exposure to heat is increasing in Ethiopia due to climate change, which is also causing water shortage.

Heat is the deadliest of extreme weather events, and heat-related mortality could be 30 times higher than previously thought, killing 500,000 people annually between 2000 and 2019.

Yet only half the world’s governments have heat warning services, less than a quarter (23%) of health ministries use meteorological information to monitor climate-sensitive health risks, and only 26 countries have climate-informed, heat-health early warning systems.

These are some of the key findings of the 2023 State of Climate Services Report, prepared by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and partners, which was released on Thursday.

In assessing progress made in climate services for health globally, the report finds the health sector “ill-prepared to safeguard society”.

Addressing the report’s launch, WMO Secretary-General Prof Petteri Taalas said that, by the latter part of this century, “we are going to face very severe combined heat and humidity stress cases, especially at low latitudes”.

Prof Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary General

Taalas added that, typically, during heatwaves, air quality was also poor: “When we had the 2003 heatwave Europe, there were 75,000 casualties and a large part of the deaths were related to poor air quality as we had a fairly high concentration of surface ozone.

“During these kinds of events, especially in urban areas, we also have challenges with ultrafine particles. That was the case in 2010, when Russia was facing a heat wave and 50,000 people died. There was also fairly poor air quality due to forest fires and peat fires, and we faced a similar situation in Canada this year,” said Taalas.

“And we know from the most recent IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report that practically the whole world has been experiencing an increase of heat waves. About half of the planet has been facing increased flooding events and a third has faced drought,” he added. 

Climate impacts on health

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus said the report “highlights the need for tailored climate information to support the health sector on a wide range of functions from heat health warning systems to mapping the risk of infectious diseases”. 

“It also calls for more to be done to prepare the health community for future shocks and pressures due to climate variability. Going forward, we must work together to make high-quality climate services available to all communities and support the health and well-being of people facing the impacts of climate change,” added Tedros.

Maria Neira, WHO’s Director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health, said that the data generated by the WMO and partners was key in assisting the health sector.

“If we use this very powerful data, and we put it at the services of the health care system, we can be better prepared to respond and prevent events from heat waves to other extreme weather events to drought, to potential outbreaks of infectious diseases,” said Neira.

Joy Shumake-Guillemot, Lead of the WHO/WMO Joint Climate and Health Office at WMO, summarising some of the report’s key findings.

Joy Shumake-Guillemot, WHO/WMO Joint Climate and Health office lead, detailed the “wide and varied” impact of climate on health, from the spread of infectious diseases such as dengue and malaria to impacts on food systems and air quality.

But she said one positive is that health has become a policy priority within the national climate policies in almost all countries and there is a “huge opportunity” to bring together climate adaptation and climate science to “help inform the decisions and policymakers to prepare communities that are vulnerable to climate change worldwide to adapt to the health risks”.

As usual, lack of finances is a problem. Currently, just 0.2% of total bilateral and multilateral adaptation finance supports health-focused projects. 

Fiji is vulnerable to sea levels rising and floods, exacerbating waterborne and vector-borne diseases.

The report includes case studies of successful partnerships between health and meteorological services. In Fiji, for example, the Ministry of Health and the meteorological services have data-sharing agreements to track waterborne and vector-borne diseases as the country battles with sea level rise and extreme weather events.

Argentina’s public institutions have been working with their research community to develop evidence-based public warnings for extreme heat for specific locations and populations. 

“In the first year of the launch of this heat-health early warning system, Argentina has launched 987 alerts across the country that have helped their public services and their communities to better prepare for the heat season,” said Shumake-Guillemot.

Meanwhile, in Europe an estimated 40 million people suffer from seasonal allergies and the region’s AutoPollen project predicts, detects and reports pollen concentrations in real time to doctors, patients and allergy patient associations via an online system and mobile app.

Way forward to COP28 and beyond

“Despite examples of success, data shows that the health sector is under-utilizing available climate knowledge and tools. At the same time, climate services need to be further enhanced to fully satisfy the health sector requirements,” the report notes.

Meanwhile, Neira told the launch that health is firmly on the agenda of the next global climate meeting, COP28.

“There will be a special ministerial high-level roundtable and the first-ever health day at COP28,” said Neira.

“This is not only to raise the voice of the health community to explain how bad [climate change] is impacting our health, but to ask for more action and to demonstrate that the health community is now very much into the political agenda and in pushing for the reduction of emissions and adaptation,” she added.

Wellcome Trust’s Madeleine Thomson, head of impacts and adaptation, predicts “a tsunami of demand coming to the climate community for climate information relevant to health”. 

“At the moment, we do not have a well-developed health community that is capacitated to ask the right questions, seek the right partnerships, and engage effectively,” said Thomson, but added that a lot more could be done to bring the health and climate communities together.

Image Credits: Oxfam East Africa.

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