The past few decades have presented many unprecedented public health challenges.
Recently, our planet has been faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating health, social, and economic repercussions, which have shown us the power of research and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and international cooperation for health.
More importantly, the pandemic made us realise the significance of preparing our planet, communities, and healthcare systems for such threatening health events.
Each year, on 7 April, the world celebrates health. This year, health organisations around the world are focusing global attention on the biggest health crisis of today’s world, climate change.
According to the World Health Organisation, about 13m deaths take place each year due to environmental conditions that are 100% preventable. It has also been estimated that by 2050, a quarter million additional deaths will occur each year because of climate change.
The burdening impacts of climate change not only challenge the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also put our current populations and future generations at risk of food insecurity, air pollution, increasing diseases, poverty, homelessness, and water scarcity among many other serious consequences.
One of the most dramatic consequences of climate change is its impact on the health of our children. As children grow, they undergo many developmental stages, during which they eat, drink, and breathe more due to their size.
By breathing at a faster rate, children have higher exposure to air pollutants that damage their lungs. In fact, already at birth, 20% of new-born deaths are attributed to air pollution worldwide.
Air pollution has also been associated with other adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight and preterm birth, both of which act as risk factors for various diseases in childhood and adulthood.
Additionally, air pollution leads to chronic lung diseases among children, such as asthma. Children with asthma experience various health and social challenges. Recent research results suggest that children with asthma experience learning and memory impairment, compromising their academic performance and social capacities. Furthermore, children with asthma are more likely to experience depression and loneliness, which negatively impact their mental and emotional wellbeing.
Climate change also means more heat waves, dry weather, and increased frequency and duration of climate disasters such as floods, droughts, and storms. These changes will impact children’s chances to be outdoors and engage in an active lifestyle. This imposes a serious public health concern, considering the current childhood obesity epidemic, further threatening the physical and mental health and wellbeing of affected children.
Locally, recent research findings from Egypt highlighted the vulnerability of various priority sectors to climate change, including human health, agriculture, fisheries, and water resources. Much national efforts have been invested in analysing possible adaptation and climate mitigation strategies. Later this year, Egypt will be hosting the UN Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP 27), and the country has already taken key steps in preparation for this international summit.
Children deserve to enjoy a healthy and safe life. Our health and that of future generations are dependent on the health of our planet. Climate change should be recognised as a health crisis, and efforts should be devoted to mitigating the effects of climate change for a brighter future.
*Seham Elmrayed is a paediatric epidemiologist at the Institute of Global Health and Human Ecology at the American University in Cairo (AUC). She has been the recipient of prestigious research awards, including the international Vanier Award.