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Climate change an opportunity

Tuesday July 14, 2015 Written by Published in Weather
Climate Change Cook Islands is working with the Ministry of Health to address climate change impacts on health and wellbeing. Pictured is the scene of destruction on the island of Aitutaki after Cyclone Pat in 2010. Climate Change Cook Islands is working with the Ministry of Health to address climate change impacts on health and wellbeing. Pictured is the scene of destruction on the island of Aitutaki after Cyclone Pat in 2010.

Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity, and Climate Change Cook Islands couldn’t agree more.

The statement comes from a new report published in medical journal, The Lancet, which combines up-to-date knowledge about the impacts of climate change on our everyday lives.

New Zealand was especially criticised upon release of the report, with the New Zealand Climate and Health Council saying their government has used very poor ways to measure the costs of action, completely ignoring any benefits.

Dr Alex Macmillan from the council says together with health professionals around the world, they are calling on governments to take urgent action on climate change in assessments of cost and benefit, and placing human wellbeing and fairness at the centre of healthy climate policy.

“We welcome this definitive report on climate change as an urgent issue for our health.” Macmillan says.

Climate Change Cook Islands has weighed in on the debate, with director Ana Tiraa saying it’s important to remember that while climate change is more of a priority here, a lot of the work on climate change is funded by New Zealand.

“I don’t really follow what is happening in New Zealand, but for the Cook Islands, climate change is a crucial issue.”

“The important thing to note is that climate change is not a single entity on its own, it is a very cross cutting issue and has impacts on health, infrastructure, the economy and more.”

In terms of health, Climate Change Cook Islands and the Ministry of Health (MoH) are working together to address many of the health concerns detailed in a 2012 Climate Change and Health Adaptation Plan. 

The plan details how to address issues including cyclones and weather patterns, heat-related illnesses, respiratory infections and more.

According to the plan, the Cook Islands experiences an average of 11 cyclones a decade and cyclones are more frequent in El Niño years, like this year.  

New concern has also arisen following a cyclone warning in the Solomon Islands which is reported to be unusual at this time of the year.

One of the worst cyclones in the Cook Islands in terms of health impacts was Cyclone Martin, which caused 19 deaths and destroyed 90 per cent of homes on Manihiki in 1997. 

Cyclones have short, mid and long-term health impacts involving traumatic injuries, deaths and population displacement, waterborne infections and post-traumatic stress.

To prepare for such disasters which may be increased by climate change, Climate Change Cook Islands and MoH are working to ensure consistency and regularity of disaster response simulation training and adequate stockpiling of medications, supplies, personal protective equipment, life jackets and more.

They are also running projects which encourage debriefing, evaluation and response following a disaster, close collaboration with Red Cross and improving internet access to the outer islands to provide reliable and timely disaster information.

Another issue in the Cook Islands is respiratory infections, which are by far the most common communicable diseases in the Cook Islands.

According to the plan, climate change has the potential to increase chronic airway diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, as well as impact upon the epidemiology of respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia, both of which have been shown to be sensitive to changes in temperature. The Ministry of Health is also aware of the risks posed by heat-related illnesses should temperatures rise.

While there are no specific data on heat-related illnesses in the Cook Islands, it is likely that increases in both the average temperature and the frequency and severity of ‘“extreme heat’ events such as heatwaves, will put young children, the elderly, outdoor workers and people with pre-existing illnesses at risk. Tiraa says a lot of people don’t understand the science of climate change, but they certainly understand the impact.

However, she says the biggest problem is not having enough information and resources to facilitate research on climate change impacts in the ocean, all of which affect food security.