1302 Climate change a threat to human health in Africa

Human health is influenced by a series of factors and conditions. Sufficient good quality drinking water and food, shelter, the quality of the air, the state of the environment, working conditions, the level of education, genetics, relationships, the quality and access to health care services and medicines all play their part. The factors influencing human health are called the ‘social determinants of health’. They are shaped by public policies that depend on the political ideologies of governments and international institutions. Climate change, by influencing the social determinants of health, poses a significant threat to health and represents a heavy human, social and economic burden for Africa.


Although there is no comprehensive assessment on the effect of climate change on health in African countries, it is estimated that the cost will be heavy. By 2004, the modest warming that had occurred since the 1970s had already caused over 140,000 excess deaths annually [1]. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the global direct damage to health (i.e. excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation) will cost between US$ 2-4 billion/year by 2030[2]. Many of the major killers of Africa such as diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition and malaria, are highly climate-sensitive and are expected to worsen as the climate changes. Climate change will cause a 5–7% increase in the population at risk in Africa: young children, older adults, traditional societies, subsistence farmers and rural, poor urban and coastal populations. The weak health infrastructure on the continent is an added burden.


Climate change represents a public health problem in a number of ways.


Changes in temperature alter the geographic range of insects, snails and cold blooded animals that transmit diseases. The impact in distribution and seasonal transmission of vector-borne illnesses like malaria (anopheles mosquito), sleeping sickness (tse-tse fly) and schistosomiasis/bilharzia (a snail) is already felt and is projected to widen significantly. Malaria has already increased in the highlands of Africa owing to changes in climate and land-use practices. Studies[3] suggest that climate change could expose an additional 2 billion people to dengue fever transmission by the 2080.


Since 1970, natural disasters have increased due to climate change. This has caused over 60 000 deaths by year, mainly in developing countries. These disasters (floods and droughts) increase the risk of communicable diseases and, together with the raising of the sea level, create great stress and so increase mental disorders. Heavy rainfall and floods may also contaminate fresh water supplies and increase water-borne parasites that cause diarrhoeal diseases, which kill 2.2 million people every year. Floods may extend the breeding grounds of mosquitoes, increasing malaria, and may destroy infrastructures and services, thereby disrupting health care services.


The changes in rainfall patterns influence family agriculture and yields. In the case of African countries, the impact is mostly negative. It is estimated that production of staple foods could decrease by up to 50% by 2020. This will increase malnutrition and sickness. By the 2090s, it is estimated that climate change will widen the area affected by drought, double the frequency of extreme droughts and increase their average duration six-fold[4]. Drought favours the spread of meningococcal meningitis epidemics that occur during the dry season, mainly in the meningitis belt which stretches from Senegal in the West to Ethiopia in the East. The worst of these effects are projected to occur in developing countries among vulnerable populations. 


Action is urgent!


Each person, community or country has a share in the responsibility for climate change and its impact on health. Our own choice of life style can reduce or worsen this impact. We can reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by using public transport, cycling or walking instead of going by car, consuming less meat, eating seasonal vegetables and fruits, using green energy, recycling and repairing devices, buying products in bulk and with the minimum wrapping, preventing food waste... We can also contribute to raising awareness and advocating for policies that reduce energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and produce major health co-benefits.


Countries and communities in Africa are already taking measures to lessen climate change (“mitigation”) and to reduce its impacts on health now and for future generations (“adaptation”). Farmers’ traditional methods of adapting to varying rainfall and a community's public health and safety systems can all help. Investing in the health, water and energy sectors and developing infrastructure are other ways of adapting to climate variability. Greater efforts are needed in each country, but the international community, especially rich countries, has responsibilities, too. It needs not only to reduce its emissions and energy consumption, but also to support developing countries in strengthening their health systems and addressing threats to health caused by climate change.


Begoña Iñarra

AEFJN Executive Secretary


[1]. Global health risks: mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks. Assessment World Health Organization, Geneva, 2009.

[2]  WHO Fact sheet N°266 on Climate Change and Health.

[3]. Hales S et al., Potential effect of population and climate changes on global distribution of dengue fever: an empirical model. The Lancet, 2002.

[4] Arnell N. W., Climate change and global water resources. Global Environmental Change – Human and Policy Dimensions, 2004.

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