Dr Kerryn Phelps, AMA President to the AMA Environmental Health Summit 2002, Melbourne

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

I'd like to officially welcome you to a summit that I am immensely proud to have the AMA associated with.

This summit signals the beginning of the development of a formal AMA policy on environmental health - one of the major emerging health issues internationally.

Environmental health is an extremely complex topic that requires a sophisticated and responsible response from the Australian community.

The AMA is keen to be a prominent player in this debate.

Human induced climate change will be one of the most intensely debated issues of our time.

Just look at the heat generated by the Kyoto Protocol.

Just look at the cool reception some countries give to suggestions they should reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The international scientific community has reached a consensus that human activities - predominantly the burning of oil, coal and gas, has contributed to recent global changes in climate, and that these changes will have a profound effect on all aspects of our lives.

The international community is focused on the implications of inaction for ecosystems, economic development, and the welfare of the global community.

However, the impact of global environmental change on human health needs to be at the forefront of these discussions.

The recognition of human induced climate change has focussed attention on the effect of climate variation on population health.

This is vital work.

We need to understand the scale of the issues we are facing so that we can direct multi-sectorial action to respond to this threat.

That is why today we are bringing together experts from the environment, health and scientific communities to see if there are opportunities for collaboration on this very topical public health issue.

Global climate change as projected by climatologists will have a major impact on human health on a scale not previously encountered by human society.

A recent literature review by Dr Linda Selvey, on behalf of Climate Action Network Australia, makes this very clear.

She persuasively presents evidence to support her argument that unless we initiate action now we will have major health problems in the coming decades - many of which have the potential to cripple our public health system unless we prepare ourselves.

Some of the issues she discusses are:

1. Heat related Illness.

As the temperature of the environment increases, the quality and the quantity of drinking water could decrease as water sources in some areas become threatened by drought.

We are already seeing water restrictions in many states, some such as here in Victoria for the first time in twenty years.

As a consequence, health disorders related to environmental and water contamination by bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasites will invariably increase as the quality of water decreases.

Many Aboriginal communities in Australia that follow a traditional diet could be vulnerable to health problems due to predicted changes in the amount and distribution of wildlife, fish and vegetation.

When this is combined with water shortages, this is a potential ecological disaster for these isolated communities.

There is also the increasing risk of heat stroke and heat related mortality - with the very young and the elderly most affected - that health systems will have to cope with.

2. Health Effects of Extreme Events.

Projections of frequent and extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, and tornadoes are a major concern.

They could could increase deaths, injuries, infectious diseases and, significantly, stress-related mental health problems associated with social disruption and environmentally-forced migration.

This issue of environmental migration is of major concern to Australia as many of our Pacific Island neighbours are at risk of being obliterated if sea levels rise.

We see this with in the country of Tuvalu. They are pressuring Australia to allow more of their people to emigrate. Our government - to date - has turned them down.

Paani Laupepa of Tuvalu's Ministry of National Resources has said they are expecting to evacuate their people from the atolls within 50 years.

3. Infectious Diseases.

Climate change will also have significant indirect health effects as changes in climate trigger other changes that can affect health.

An example would be the transmission of mosquito-borne diseases that are caused by pathogens being transmitted from human to human or animal to human via mosquitoes.

The most common mosquito-borne disease in Australia is epidemic polyarthritis, which is caused by infection with either Ross River virus or Barmah Forest virus.

As the climate warms up, the temperate regions in Australia will spread south. With it will invariably come these disease vectors.

Other mosquito-borne diseases that could increase as the temperature increases are Dengue fever, Australian encephalitis, and Japanese encephalitis.

But it is not just the mosquito-borne disease we must be prepared for. It is also the food- and water-borne diseases.

The prevalence of these diseases increases in warmer temperatures. As the temperature increases, we must be prepared for more outbreaks unless we increase our vigilance.

Action Required.

We can, however, minimise the harm from climate change. The best way to do that is to take action now to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

I personally believe the Federal Government must ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change as an important first step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The AMA does not have a position on this at this stage.

Secondly, we need a National Greenhouse Policy that engages all Australians in ensuring that we meet our Kyoto target and start to dramatically cut our greenhouse pollution.

It's clear that we need more research into the health impacts of climate change. I call on the Federal Government to get behind this sort of research.

The facts are there for all to see…and heed.

In the 9 November 2002 edition of the British Medical Journal, Jonathan Patz and R Sari Kovats present some compelling arguments about the health effects of climate change.

Some of their more interesting observations include:

  • Arguably, climate change is one of the largest environmental and health equity challenges of our times; wealthy energy consuming nations are most responsible for the emissions that cause global warming, yet poor countries are most at risk.

  • Since the late 1950s, the global average surface temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius, and snow cover and ice extent have diminished.

  • Mid-range estimates for future climate change are 3 degrees Celsius global mean warming and a rise in the sea level by 45 centimetres by 2100.

  • The rate of change in climate is faster now than in any other period in the past thousand years.

  • A heatwave in Chicago in 1995 caused 514 heat-related deaths (12 per 100,000 population.

  • Ozone can heighten the sensitivity of people with asthma to allergens and contribute to the development of asthma in children.

  • Climate change may increase the risk of flooding of rivers. Immediate effects are largely death from drowning and injuries caused by being swept against hard objects. Medium term effects…caused by ingestion of contaminated water include cholera or hepatitis A…or leptospirosis.

  • Heavy rainfall and runoff influences the transport of microbial and toxic agents from agricultural fields, human septic systems and toxic dumps.

  • In Peru, more children develop diarrhoeal disease when temperatures are high, and admissions during the El Nino of 1997-98 increased appreciably.

  • Impoverished populations in the developing world do not have the industry, transportation, or intense agriculture that cause global warming, yet they have limited capacity to protect themselves against the adverse consequences. In this way, climate change is one of the largest challenges of our times for environmental and health equity.

  • Considering the health burden experienced by refugees and populations subjected to overcrowding, lack of shelter, and competition for resources, the problems presented by displaced persons may turn out to be the largest public health challenge regarding the global effects of climate change. Conflict may be one of the worst results emerging from such forced migration.

    I see it as a clear case of the polluters helping the polluted and the developed helping the developing nations.

    But we can make a start by doing our bit here today.

    In an Australian first, this summit will see scientists and epidemiologists outline the health risks associated with climate change and discuss the very serious consequences of apathy and inaction.

    Climate change is a given. It is happening.

    The impact of climate change on the Australian community is difficult to predict and measure. But signs of changes are clearly emerging. We must work together to come up with creative solutions.

    Our speakers today represent the broad range of interest groups that have a stake in the health and wellbeing of our community.

    I welcome:

    Professor Tony McMichael - Director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.

    Dr Graeme Pearman - Chief of CSIRO Atmospheric Research Division.

    And Mr Don Henry - Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

    Thanks to the speakers and all delegates for making the effort to be here today.

    Your deliberations and outcomes will be valuable contributions to the community debate on the impact of climate change on human health.

    Your views will also influence our community and political leaders who will inevitably develop policy to respond to issues relating to climate change in Australia.

    Thank you.

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