Maria Neira: If we improve our health care, we can beat climate change

The human cost of climate change may be measured in the toll imposed by droughts, floods and heat-waves. The World Health Organization (WHO) and climate change experts have warned of the adverse effects global warming has on air quality, food production, water availability and the distribution of infectious diseases. Yet policy-makers, and even the health community, have given insufficient attention and resources to using health-related arguments to enhance public understanding of the need for stronger climate-change control measures.

This is not sufficiently forward thinking. We know that current climate-related threats to human health can be avoided or controlled by relatively routine and inexpensive public health measures. Furthermore, awareness of the significant health benefits and consequent cost savings of well-conceived climate control policies can be an effective driving force for global action.

World leaders, gathering at the 14th Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention (COP14) in Poznan, have a unique opportunity to radically improve this situation. They are in a position to agree mechanisms that will strengthen national health systems and use health impact as a key factor in prioritising action and investment.

Health systems have been protecting people from the hazards of weather and climate for years. Early warning systems, public education for behavioural change, disease control, disaster preparedness, mosquito control, food hygiene and inspection, nutritional supplementation, vaccines, primary and mental health care, and training have been shown to reduce vulnerability to the effects of global warming.

Policies in all sectors that aim to reduce greenhouse gases can have very beneficial or detrimental effects on some of the major health challenges the world faces.

Robust decisions in Poznan to support development of national health systems' capacity to contend with climate change is essential. It could ensure that in the post-Kyoto agreement we will all share in the health and economic benefits that can accrue from countering climate change.

Dr Maria Neira is Director, Department of Public Health and Environment World Health Organisation