Climate change poses an unprecedented threat to human health. It is contributing towards the emergence of new diseases, and exacerbating existing ones.
Tuberculosis (TB) is curable and preventable. Yet in 2021, around 1.6 million people died from the disease. Worldwide measles cases spiked by 79% in the first two months of 2022, despite a licensed vaccine against the disease being available since 1963. In refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, an outbreak of diphtheria – another disease preventable through vaccines – saw nearly 8,000 people infected in 2018.
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Despite significant medical, scientific and sanitation advances, there is increasing potential for infectious diseases to spread. Climate change – which is not just an environmental emergency, but a public health one too – is meeting existing drivers such as globalisation, urbanisation and inequality to fuel the transmission of disease. New pathogens are emerging and existing ones are coming back to haunt us.
COVID-19 laid bare how woefully under-prepared we were for a pandemic – despite warnings for years that one was on horizon. It has left our healthcare systems scarred and scrambling to recover, and exposed many long-standing and systemic issues.
Now climate change is sending us headlong into another health crisis – and one we risk being equally poorly prepared for unless we can make significant progress on ensuring affordable, high-quality healthcare is accessible to everyone.
The climate-made health crisis
Climate change poses an unprecedented threat to human health. It is contributing towards the emergence of new diseases, and exacerbating existing ones. TB, for example, has been shown to be a climate-sensitive disease – changes in weather affect transmission through factors such as malnutrition, while population displacement as a result of extreme climate events also drives up infection rates.
Malaria – already a major killer – will also be affected by a warmer climate, which is likely to favour the spread of malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Alongside this, air, water and other forms of pollution are damaging our health. And climate change is causing more frequent and severe natural catastrophes that are putting lives and well-being at risk.
Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause around 250,000 additional deaths per year because of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The direct damage costs to health (i.e. excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation), is estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion/year by 2030.
An unequal world
Climate change is undermining many of the social determinants for good health, such as livelihoods, equality and access to health care and social support structures. These climate-sensitive health risks are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, including women, children, ethnic minorities, poor communities, migrants or displaced persons, older populations, and those with underlying health conditions.
Medical advances, as well as improved access to healthcare and sanitation, have significantly reduced the mortality and morbidity of infectious diseases. And the speed at which a vaccine was developed in the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the capabilities of modern science.
But the reality is, global access to vaccines for many diseases – not just COVID-19 – has been uneven, and many people are still struggling to access high-quality healthcare. The disease burden in the Global South remains significant in the face of neglected tropical diseases, HIV infections, TB and malaria, for example. And these are also the populations most at risk from crises related to climate change.
Even before the pandemic, the World Bank and WHO estimated that at least half the world lacks access to essential healthcare services. And the problem doesn’t stop at the level of basic healthcare – even more services in more developed nations are plagued by legacy systems that make them inefficient and unwieldy.
All the while, demand for medical services is rising. Ageing populations are putting pressure on systems as diseases such as dementia become more prevalent and comorbidities rise.
Mental health care provision is becoming a growing burden, with COVID triggering a silent epidemic. And inequalities are leading to uneven health outcomes for many.
While no one is safe from these health risks of climate change, the people whose health is being harmed first and worst by the climate crisis are the people who contribute least to its causes, and who are least able to protect themselves and their families against it - people in low-income and disadvantaged countries and communities.
Areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond. We must invest now in healthcare systems and healthcare workers in developing countries. This is especially vital in places that are vulnerable to climate change like Indonesia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and the Bahamas.
The World Economic Forum is committed to shaping the future of healthcare, to improve sustainability and resilience in the face of these challenges. Through events such as our annual meeting in Davos, as well as throughout the year, we aim to facilitate collaboration and knowledge exchange, and bridge health inequalities. Our work falls into four main categories.
1. Preserving health and wellness
Our Global Health Equity Network aims to address disparities in health and well-being outcomes between countries and ensure that everyone has access to health and healthcare.
We bring together executive leaders to commit to prioritise health equity within their business, as well as to drive change within their wider ecosystem. Our initiatives have a particular focus on women’s health and workplace health and wellness, including workplace TB, workforce mental health, working with cancer, and workplace obesity.
2. Systems transformation
The world could – and should – have been better prepared for the pandemic. Our Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience brings together multiple initiatives focused on fostering collaboration across sectors, to build more resilient and sustainable health systems for tackling global risks.
In conjunction with this, our Global Coalition for Value in Healthcare aims to eliminate ineffective spending on global health. It steers our work ensuring solutions and policy recommendations are based on evidence. And through innovation hubs, it also helps bring about improvements for patients while reducing overall costs.
3. Technology and innovation
Our Digital Health Action Alliance aims to bring the benefits of digital technology to healthcare, in particular in relation to non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Non-communicable diseases account for nearly three-quarters of deaths worldwide, but only have 2.2 percent of development assistance allocated to them. Our work focuses on targeting prevention, transforming diagnostics, expanding therapeutic access and innovation in community healthcare.
We are also exploring use of breakthrough technologies (such as AI, ML, VR, AR etc.) in creating better access to healthcare and improving health outcomes.
4. Emergency preparedness and response
We saw with the COVID-19 vaccine how extremely inequitable distribution was, with low-income and middle-income countries that lack manufacturing capacity generally at the back of the queue.
Our Distributed Vaccine Manufacturing Collaborative is one way we are working to promote public-private collaboration to better respond to shared health challenges like climate change and endemic diseases, as well as to prevent future outbreaks.
In addition, we are working to help establish a network of genomic surveillance which is critical to detecting and instantly sharing information on pathogens that could cause infectious disease outbreaks, identifying their genome sequences, and accelerating the development of medical countermeasures.
Ensuring that every person has equal access to the highest standards of healthcare means identifying and scaling up new solutions – not relying on legacy ideas to solve future challenges. We need to transform healthcare globally through systemic change, innovation and collaboration, making the best use of the digital tools available.
Together, we can make progress on addressing the urgent unmet healthcare needs of the global population.
— The author, Shyam Bishen, is Head of Health & Healthcare, Executive Committee Member, World Economic Forum. This article is part of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2023.
(Edited by : C H Unnikrishnan)
First Published: Jan 13, 2023 9:47 AM IST