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Experts have developed a research agenda to better understand and deal with the impacts of climate change on human health.

The agenda was developed by more than 80 researchers and representatives from donor and UN agencies at a WHO meeting on climate change and health, held in Madrid, Spain, this week (6–8 October).

The aim is to to "speed up, focus and intensify climate change and health research," said Maria Neira, WHO director of public health and environment, at a news conference.

"We want to provide the best possible scientific evidence base for governments to take protective actions to protect the people from climate change."

The agenda identifies several priority research areas, including how climate change will interact with key factors affecting health, such as economic development, urbanisation, access to care and exposure to health risks.

More research is needed to better characterise the long-term effects of climate change — such as drought, fewer freshwater resources and population displacement — on health. Such effects will have a major impact on mental health and increase the risk of conflict, say the researchers.

The health implications of mitigation and adaptation policies should also be investigated. Biofuels, for example, may have negative impacts on food security and malnutrition, and sustainable transport and energy policies may have positive implications.

Neira said the agenda "sets a roadmap and guidance for governments as well as research institutions and donors to take applied research action to fill critical knowledge gaps".

The lack of research in developing countries is the most immediate gap, said Tony McMichael, director of the National Center of Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University and chair of the Madrid meeting, at the news conference.

"Most of the research done in the last decade has been done in developed countries, but in general the risks from climate change on health will be greater in lower income countries, particularly those in geographically vulnerable regions of world. We need to address this imbalance."

In developing countries, McMichael said, research capacity is low and there are many more substantial and immediate public problems that must continue to be studied and addressed. "There is a need for additional funding on top [of current funding] for strengthening ongoing research and building a public health infrastructure in these countries."

The research agenda will be presented to the secretarial board of the WHO for approval, and presented at the WHO World Health Assembly in May 2009.

It is hoped the agenda will also feed into the post-Kyoto protocol to be discussed at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009.