University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: SPH Researcher Studies Health Impacts of Climate Change in Pacific Island Countries

SPH Researcher Studies Health Impacts of Climate Change in Pacific Island Countries

12/19/2016
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Pacific island countries are among the most vulnerable in the world to the current and future health risks of climate change, according to a group of international researchers that includes Kristie Ebi from the University of Washington School of Public Health.

“Vulnerability to climate change in the Pacific is a function of the unique geographic, demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the islands,” says Ebi, senior author and professor of global health and of environmental & occupational health sciences at the School. “Future health risks will arise from interactions among their exposure to changing weather patterns associated with climate change, their vulnerability to these changes, and the capacity of the countries to prepare for and manage these risks.”

Ebi and her fellow researchers summarize the health risks of climate change and propose adaptation strategies that may minimize future threats in a report published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The report is based on results from a regional climate change and health vulnerability assessment, conducted by the World Health Organization between 2010 and 2012, in 13 Pacific island countries: Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Among the highest priority climate-sensitive health risks are:

  • Trauma from extreme weather events;
  • Heat-related illnesses;
  • Compromised safety and security of water and food;
  • Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria;
  • Zoonoses, or diseases that are naturally transmissible from animals to humans;
  • Respiratory illnesses;
  • Mental health disorders;
  • Non-communicable diseases;
  • Population pressures; and,
  • Health systems deficiencies.

“There are some health risks that are of concern in the Pacific to an extent not documented elsewhere in the world,” researchers write. These include non-communicable diseases, mental health issues and ciguatera—a foodborne illness caused by eating contaminated fish.

Pacific island countries already experience the highest rates of non-communicable diseases in the world. The potential for climate change to amplify this burden of disease “is considerable and of significant concern,” researchers note, particularly in the context of preparing for and effectively managing climate-related disasters.

Pacific islands face substantial challenges to implementing plans for adaptation, including severely under-resourced health systems. Researchers suggest these countries consider “pragmatic, realistic measures that would both improve health care and build health systems resilience to climate change.”

Examples include improving water, sanitation and hygiene systems, and scaling up vector control. “Such interventions have clear, broad and long-term benefits, climate change notwithstanding,” researchers say, but these actions may not be possible for small developing islands to implement without additional resources and technical support.

Lead author of this paper is Lachlan McIver from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University in Canberra. Collaborators include public health researchers from the University of Auckland, University of Otago, Curtin University, Nagasaki University, University of Tsukuba, Seoul National University and the University of Western Sydney.