Commonwealth health ministries under pressure amid rise in climate-related illnesses | global development

Climate change is now the biggest concern facing Commonwealth health ministers, the organisation’s secretary general has warned.

Patricia Scotland said it was a “current reality” rather than a problem of the future, with impacts such as heat stress and the rise of insect-borne diseases particularly acute in smaller states.

“If you look at what’s happening with zoonotic diseases, if you look at what’s changing in terms of malaria, a lot of dengue and chikungunya, all of this is related to climate,” he said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the climate crisis will cause around 250,000 additional deaths a year between 2030 and 2050 from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea and heat stress alone.

Referring to the international goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels, Lady Scotland said: “If you look at Tuvalu, we said in 2015 that it was ‘1 .5 to stay alive’. . That was not a slogan, it was a reality (in) Tuvalu.

“Now we are at 1.5 (celsius). So whenever ministers leave Tuvalu, they are never entirely sure that when they return, their island will still be there. That is not the reality of tomorrow; that is your reality today.

“I am very concerned that time has passed and passed and is running out,” he added.

Patricia Scotland surveying the devastation left by Hurricane Dorian in 2019, the most intense tropical cyclone on record in the Bahamas. Photograph: Courtesy of the Commonwealth Secretariat

Born on the Caribbean island of Dominica, Scotland moved to the UK with her family and grew up in London, where she served as attorney general during the last Labor government.

She has been Commonwealth secretary-general since 2016, surviving an attempt to remove her from office by Boris Johnson two years ago and a previous media storm over the refurbishment of her residence.

Speaking at a meeting of Commonwealth health ministers in Geneva last month, during which the group committed to building climate-resilient health systems in the most vulnerable countries, Scotland listed a series of “shocks” that had put pressure on the 25 small island developing states. (SIDS) representing almost half of the members of the Commonwealth.

They include the health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as debt problems and food insecurity, exacerbated by conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Those factors made it more difficult to create the kind of robust, well-staffed health systems that could prove resilient to the climate crisis, Scotland said.

The climate crisis was more pressing than the threats from “major killers” diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, the pressure of antimicrobial resistance and the possibility of another pandemic, he said.

Commonwealth officials offer examples of climate-related health problems across the organization and say they are not limited to the poorest member states: A 2019 paper warned that Canada was likely to see more “exotic” infectious diseases, as well as more cases of locally endemic diseases. like West Nile virus.

This can help drive action, Scotland said, adding: “When I became general secretary in 2016, the difficulty we had in helping people understand that (climate change) was pervasive was really tough.”

But he pointed to recent extreme weather in the UK and said: “Now, people are starting to get a little taste of what other people have been experiencing.”

The Commonwealth had helped smaller member states access international funding to strengthen their health systems, Scotland said, including by improving access to digital health services for when people could not access face-to-face treatment.

Dengue patients in a Dhaka hospital. Bangladesh hospitals treated more than 320,000 people for the mosquito-borne disease in 2023, with 1,705 deaths. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy

The Commonwealth was also coordinating technological solutions such as high-tech mosquito monitoring devices and artificial intelligence-based early warning systems for dengue outbreaks, he said.

Their ministerial meeting was held just before the WHO World Health Assembly in Geneva, at which countries agreed that the WHO should focus on the climate crisis as a growing health threat over the next four years.

“I’m a glass-half-full person,” Scotland added. “It makes no sense to say that the world is going to end; It will only end if we allow it.

“And those of us who can fight, must fight and must fight now.”

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