• World
  • Jun 10

Climate change impacts on health of pregnant women, children

• Pregnant women, newborns, children, adolescents and older people are facing serious health complications due to climate change, according to a new report of the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, the specific needs of these groups have been largely neglected in the climate response.

• The report highlights available scientific evidence on the health impacts of different climate hazards at key life stages, from heatwaves to air pollution and natural disasters like wildfires and flooding. 

• Together, they show that climate-related health risks have been crucially underestimated for younger and older people and during pregnancy, with serious, often life-threatening implications.

• While awareness of climate change has increased, actions to safeguard the lives of those at most risk have barely scratched the surface of what’s needed. 

• 2023 was the warmest year on record in over 170 years, and there were multiple climate emergencies from wildfires to cyclones, flooding, and extreme heat.

• Authored by experts from WHO and academics from around the world, the report reveals a number of specific physical and mental health impacts that arise due to different climate hazards. 

For example:

i) High temperatures are associated with adverse birth outcomes, primarily preterm birth and stillbirth, as well as hypertension and gestational diabetes in pregnancy. Heatwaves affect cognitive function and therefore learning for children and adolescents, while increasing heart attacks and respiratory complications among older people. Each additional 1°C in minimum daily temperature over 23.9°C has been shown to increase the risk of infant mortality by as much as 22.4 per cent.

ii) Ambient air pollution increases the likelihood of high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, preterm birth, and negative impacts on foetal brain and lung development. It raises risk of respiratory illness among children and older people, who also face greater risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and pneumonia.

iii) Climate-related natural disasters have significant mental and physical health impacts. Flooding and drought reduce access to safe water and food supplies, increasing diarrhoeal diseases and malnutrition. Wildfires have been shown to increase respiratory disorders and cardiovascular mortality rates for older people.

• While climate change affects everyone, climate-related displacements and disruptions have severe consequences for those needing regular access to health services and social support. 

• Infants and older people as well as pregnant women may have particular physiological risk factors, such as difficulties with temperature regulation, vulnerability to dehydration, and/or weaker immune systems. 

• Indirect impacts on human health from climate change include reduced crop outputs and food shortages, increased vector-borne disease and greater stress which impacts on mental health. 

• By documenting the health impacts of different climate hazards for particular populations, the researchers aim to help governments and programmes address risks and plan to take action. 

• Currently, few climate adaptation measures are tailored for the specific needs of women, infants, children and adolescents, the authors note, as well as older people who may have mobility and cognitive constraints. 

• Measures should include preparing childcare, social care and educational systems for extreme weather events and rising temperatures, the report notes, as well as engaging people of all ages in climate action, dialogue, and planning.

• Among the solutions to help mitigate the threat posed by our warming world, the WHO suggested flexible work hours and modifying buildings for childcare, education and healthcare, with an emphasis on reducing emissions too.

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