Women and children are vulnerable to the effects of climate change in terms of their health and wellbeing, a top WHO official said, stressing the need for a united approach by countries in promoting the integration of health and climate change in their regional and global plans to consider their needs.
Citing an example, Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the World Health Organisation, Geneva, said pregnancy represents a moment of heightened vulnerability to climate hazards.
This is due to the various physiological changes that take place in pregnancy and that make this population particularly sensitive to heat stress, Dr Banerjee, who was here last week to attend the 'International Maternal Newborn Health Conference' (IMNHC 2023), said.
"The same is for newborns: their immature immune systems and their reduced ability to regulate their own temperature puts them at greater risk when climate extremes occur- not to mention the fact that newborns as well as young children often depend on their caregivers for cooling or hydration," he told PTI.
This information comes from a growing body of literature showing associations between exposure to climate hazards, such as heat and air pollution, and outcomes such as preterm births or stillbirths, Dr Banerjee said.
This is why it is urgent to work together to support countries to move forward with actions and promote the integration of climate change and health into respective national, regional and global plans and then within these plans, to consider the needs of maternal, newborn and child health, he said.
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"We are urging national governments and partners to join The Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH)," he said.
"We also urge governments to begin a dialogue with representatives of women and community groups, health workers associations, and other stakeholders to identify and address their needs, drawing on a range of behavioural, health systems, policy, health and environmental solutions. We aspire for climate resilient health systems that have the needs of pregnant and postpartum women, newborns, children and adolescents at their core," he said.
Dr Banerjee addressed several sessions during the four-day conference which was held between May 8-11 and participated in sessions involving dialogues on Climate Change and Maternal and newborn health.
The IMNHC conference was hosted by the Government of South Africa and AlignMNH a global initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and in partnership with UNFPA, UNICEF, and World Bank.
On what is the role of the health sector in transforming policies into actions, amid global agencies doing a lot of advocacy for climate change, Dr Banerjee said: "First of all, we need to acknowledge that the health sector alone contributes to 4.4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, although these emissions are not equal globally."
He underlined that the health sector needs to play a dual role --on the one side by building intrinsic climate resilience by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time this transition should not come at the expense of the quality of care, and patients and health workers' own health and wellbeing.
"Climate sensitive leadership and governance are essential to ensure that once priority actions are identified, the health sector can move forward, work with other sectors and build a climate-resilient health system, develop health national adaptation plans, take actions to be prepared for disasters and other emergencies or disruptions, and put measures in place to care for populations including policies to protect pregnant women, newborns and children from climate-related risks," he said.
According to the 'Born Too Soon: Decade of Action on Preterm Birth' by WHO, UNICEF and PMNCH -- the world's largest alliance for women, children, and adolescents, which was launched last week here, preterm birth rates have not changed in the past decade in any region of the world and that four Cs conflict, climate change, COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis heighten threats for the most vulnerable women and babies in all countries.
For example, air pollution is estimated to contribute to 6 million preterm births each year.
Nearly 1 in 10 preterm babies are born in the 10 most fragile countries affected by humanitarian crises, according to a new analysis in the report. Climate science is increasingly exposing the direct and indirect effects of climate change on pregnant women, stillbirths and preterm birth, the report stated.
An estimated 13.4 million babies were born preterm in 2020, with 45 per cent of them being born in just five countries, including India, China and Pakistan, it pointed out.
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