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Safeguarding Health in a Warming World

As global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, so, too, does the frequency and intensity of natural disasters and, with them, the risk of deadly epidemics and endemic disease outbreaks. Yet strengthening primary health care, which is the best defense against such devastation, occupies little space on climate agendas.

GENEVA – From infrastructure damage caused by extreme weather events to drought-induced food insecurity, there are many climate risks for which the world should urgently be preparing. But one of the areas where climate change poses arguably the most significant risk is barely being discussed: human health.

When natural disasters strike, the death toll from floods, famines, or building collapses is often just the beginning; the sickness and disease that follow sometimes do far more damage. As global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, so, too, does the frequency and intensity of natural disasters and, with them, the risk of deadly epidemics and endemic disease outbreaks.

That risk was underscored recently in Mozambique, where Cyclone Idai, which struck in March, has led to a cholera epidemic, with more than 6,700 suspected cases reported so far. As for oft-ignored endemic disease risks, a year after floods devastated Pakistan in 2010, there were 37 million reported cases of malaria, diarrhea, and acute respiratory and skin infections. Similarly, in the Solomon Islands, flooding in the capital caused by a 2014 tropical storm led to an outbreak of diarrheal disease, which spread to five districts that had not been affected by the flooding.

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