Doctors do not recognise that carbon is public health matter

British Medical Journal | February 2, 2008

The impact of climate change on currently recognised health risks and on public health in general should be emphasised to help the public and policy makers better understand the link between climate and health, a global group of health and science editors recommended at a meeting last week.

The World Health Editors Network (WHEN) met in Geneva to discuss how best to communicate the effect of climate change on health, which is the theme for the World Health Organization’s world health day, on 7 April.

Several speakers warned that it was difficult to raise the problem of climate change within the medical community. Robin Stott, chairman of MedAct, a global health charity that is concerned about the health implications of conflict, development, and environmental change, said, “Understanding that carbon is a public health issue—we simply haven’t wrapped our heads around it.”

Nigel Duncan, public relations consultant to the World Medical Association, an international representative organisation, pointed out that doctors have difficulties with the question of climate change because of the pressure they face in their daily work. They have to “raise their eyes above the press of day to day concerns” to deal with climate change, he said.

Roberto Bertollini, senior adviser in the department of public health and environment at the World Health Organization, said that there was no doubt that climate change would have an impact on health. “The question now is about the order of magnitude.”

He made the point that an important consequence of climate change would be the increased frequency or severity of familiar health risks, such as respiratory diseases, allergic disorders, injuries, and drownings as the result of flooding, and heat induced deaths. “We need to use this as an opportunity to raise the profile of public health,” he suggested.

The group, which included representatives from organisations such as the International Council of Nurses, the Health and Environment Alliance, and the World Dental Federation raised several questions about improving understanding of climate change and health, among them whether mitigation or adaptation are best considered first or if they can be considered concurrently.

Other themes were the gap between rich and poor and the difference between environmental and public health messages.

One suggestion was that the health requirements being imposed on other sectors, such as transport, energy, and education, should be reframed so that incorporation of matters related to climate change are seen as constructive, possibly even as providing additional sources or opportunities to broaden policy advocacy.