A new strategy aimed at improving the health of Australians must include the impacts of climate change, according to 30 prominent health groups.
Experts say the impact of climate change is being ignored despite predictions that it will lead to 85 deaths per 100,000 people globally per year by the end of the century – more than are currently killed by all infectious diseases across the world.
Climate and Health Alliance Executive Director Fiona Armstrong said climate change would see thousands more Australians suffer from infectious and cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illness, heat stress, mental illness, violence, food insecurity, poor water quality and poorer nutrition.
“If the government chooses to ignore the health impacts of climate change, they are refusing to prevent that,” she said.
The Federal Government is currently developing the National Preventive Health Strategy to identify areas of focus for the next 10 years that will improve the health of Australians and to address the complex causes of things like obesity, reducing tobacco use, or improving mental health.
It aims to looks at factors such as access to green space, nutritious food supply, sanitation, supportive community networks and how cultural influences can contribute to better outcomes.
But health groups, including three groups that are part of the expert steering committee advising the government on the strategy, have released a joint statement today criticising the failure of the consultation paper to mention climate change, or include it as part of its six focus areas.
The Public Health Association of Australia, Consumers Health Forum of Australia and the Australian College of Nursing are all now going public with their concerns.
“As with unhealthy food, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, and alcohol, it is critical that the role of vested interests in relation to climate change is identified as undermining efforts to prevent illness and promote health and wellbeing,” the statement says.
It notes that climate change can impact impact people’s health in many ways.
This includes the impacts of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and bushfires, which pose a direct threat to people’s lives.
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But there are also other indirect impacts. Worsening air quality from smoke can create health risks, and there can also be impacts due to changes in temperature, risks to food safety and drinking water quality, and effects on mental health.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated 250,000 extra deaths a year are expected to be caused by climate change between 2030 and 2050.
This includes 38,000 extra deaths from heat stress as well as deaths from diarrhoea, malaria and malnutrition.
Elderly people in particular are susceptible to high temperatures, which can cause deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Floods can contaminate freshwater supplies, heighten the risk of waterborne diseases, and create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. They can also disrupt the delivery of medical and health services.
Ms Armstrong said climate change was the biggest threat to health this century.
“The National Preventive Health Strategy must tackle climate change to protect and promote health. If we don’t, everything else risks being done for nought,” she said.
Other groups that have signed the statement include Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA) and the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW).
“A National Preventive Health Strategy that is fit for purpose in the 21st century must address climate change – or it will fail in its objectives,” the statement says.
“Preventing deaths, illnesses and injuries associated with climate change requires leadership from governments to tackle the root causes of climate change, support the health sector and the health professions to build climate resilience, and ensure the community is well informed and capable of taking health protective actions.”
A University of Melbourne study released this month found the annual economic damage of climate change in Australia, could be similar to the annual cost of the coronavirus pandemic by 2038.
Climate change is estimated to cost the Australian economy at least $1.89 trillion over the next 30 years if current emissions policies are maintained.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced in June 2019 the government would develop the 10-year strategy and it is due to be completed by March 2021.
The consultation paper will set out what the strategy will aim to achieve and how it could be done. Rather than focusing on specific diseases, the strategy will focus on system wide, evidence-based approaches to reducing poor health.
The strategy’s consultation paper is open for feedback until September 28.