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[SYDNEY] Climate change poses the most significant threat to human health in the small low-lying, densely populated Pacific island nations, which have the least ability to adapt to such risks.

According to two recent studies by the WHO, Pacific Islanders are facing major health risks from non-communicable and infectious diseases which will be further aggravated by climate change.

“Increasing temperatures will reduce local harvest, compelling islanders to rely on imported, processed and calorie-dense food, and discourage physical activity. These will aggravate the incidence of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular problems, diabetes and hypertension, which are related to obesity, poor diet and limited physical activity,” says Rokho Kim, a lead co-author of both studies and environmental health specialist at WHO’s regional office for Western Pacific in Fiji.

In some Pacific island states, mortality rates from non-communicable diseases are already among the highest in the world, with over 20 per cent of the adult population suffering from diabetes while nearly 60 per cent are overweight.

Climate-sensitive infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya, Zika virus, typhoid, diarrhoea and leptospirosis are also posing a major threat.

“In the past three years, we have had over 40 large climate-sensitive infectious disease outbreaks in the region. There has also been a spike in drownings and injuries, and mental illnesses because of natural disasters,” adds Kim.

“The very real concern is that climate change is going to further force that cycle of health risk,” says Lachlan McIver, also a lead co-author of both studies and associate professor of tropical medicine at James Cook University in Australia.

“For example, forcing communities to relocate and become even more over-crowded, will lead to increased transmission of infectious diseases like diarrhoea and respiratory infections. It will also affect food security and lead to malnutrition that will then exacerbate the high burdens of non-communicable diseases,” McIver notes.

Since 2010, WHO’s division of Pacific technical support has been working with health ministries and other sectors of 13 Pacific island countries to assess their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and to build broad-based climate-resilient health programmes to manage health risks from rising sea levels, extreme and frequent floods, droughts and heat waves.

The countries involved are the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

While most Pacific countries have developed a national climate change and health action plan, lack of human resources and financial constraints are posing a challenge to their implementation.

To address existing health governance and policies, the health strategies use scientific and indigenous knowledge.

“Pacific islanders’ local knowledge based on experience and observation is being utilised, for example, to improve food security. Some of the atoll countries are growing salt and drought-resistant staple crops like taro and cassava, and trialling different plant and fish species that may be resilient to more acidic or warmer oceans,” McIver says.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.


1. Lachlan McIver and others Health Impacts of Climate Change in Pacific Island Countries: A Regional Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptation Priorities (Environmental Health Perspectives, 8 December 2015)
2. WHO Western Pacific Region Human health and climate change in Pacific island countries (WHO Regional Office for Western Pacific, Division of Pacific Technical Support, 2015)