Deakin experts: Climate change threatens emergency health responses

Media release
11 October 2019

Climate change is increasing public health risks, while also making it more difficult to deal with disease outbreaks and other health crises through emergency and humanitarian action, according to Deakin experts.

The Humanitarian Health team at Deakin's Centre for Humanitarian Leadership (CHL) is launching a sector-wide survey as part of new research into how the humanitarian health sector can cope with the "climate-related disease burdens" that are already emerging as a result of climate change, and likely to get worse.

Deakin Lecturer in Humanitarian Health Sonia Brockington said more needed to be done to understand and prepare for the impact of climate change on humanitarian practice and emergency health responses.

"The urgency is increasing," Ms Brockington said.

"The pace and scale of climate change has far-reaching health implications – from the spread of new and re-emerging infectious diseases, to escalating food insecurity, to the mental health impact on people who have lost their homes and livelihoods.

"As a result, the health needs of populations are becoming more complex, systems are being stretched, and hard-fought gains in health system improvements are being eroded."

Elizabeth Irvine, a Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Health Team, said climate change will likely increase the threat of rampant disease outbreaks during humanitarian events.

"On top of the usual disease burden that we see during humanitarian crises, we're expecting to see in the future an increasing load of chronic disease and what we call 'climate-related disease burdens' on top of that," Ms Irvine said.

She said the unusually severe flooding in Bangladesh earlier this year was an example of how climate change could impact a humanitarian health response.

"This year's monsoons have been catastrophic, causing severe flooding, landslides and storm damage - millions of Bangladeshi people have been affected, as have many of Bangladesh's 900,000 Rohingya refugees," she said.

"The rains have destroyed homes, livelihoods and critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges and health centres, making it even harder to deliver life-saving assistance.  With flood waters receding, the risk of water-borne infectious diseases remains high – as is the risk of acute watery diarrhoea, which in humanitarian contexts can be life-threatening, especially for children."

CHL, supported by Save the Children and Deakin University, has launched a new research project to better understand how humanitarian health systems can be strengthened to meet climate change demands.

Workers in humanitarian health, emergency health and the sector more broadly are being invited to complete a short survey about their knowledge, attitudes and practice regarding climate change.

"This survey is the first step towards a robust evidence bank that will help us understand how humanitarian health systems can be strengthened to meet climate change demands," Ms Brockington said.

Nick Ireland, Head of Specialised Technical Services at Save the Children, said:

"In times of humanitarian crises, children and communities are at their most vulnerable. At such times, good health is arguably the most essential building block for post-disaster recovery.

"It is therefore critical that we understand the impacts that climate change will have on health in humanitarian contexts. This research is essential to help us all fill the information voids that currently exist in this area."

The Humanitarian Health and Climate Change survey is currently available in English, with multilingual options (including French, Bengali and Bahasa) forthcoming. The five-minute survey is available online at centreforhumanitarianleadership.org/climate and can be filled in anonymously. You can contact the humanitarian health team directly at health@cfhl.org.au

This project has Deakin University Ethics Approval (HEA-19-144).

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