Malaria in Europe? It sounds quite implausible doesn't it but such a scenario may not be too far off. The disease is currently confined to Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia, but the impacts of climate change on the health of individuals and populations, combined with the globalization of trade, could see it spread to parts of southern Europe. This scenario will happen if the issue of health is still ignored by world leaders meeting this week for the United Nations climate change conference in Paris.
Such an omission from the summit's agenda is hard to comprehend given the gravity of the problem. The figures speak for themselves: the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that by 2030, we will see hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide annually due to climate change - be it from the effects of natural disasters, malnutrition, or the rise of infectious diseases.
The consequences of global warming are already in evidence today, as highlighted in the Lancet's 2015 Health and Climate Change Commission Report. To make matters worse, those most likely to be affected are also the most vulnerable: the poor, the young, the elderly and women.
The world's leaders have no time to waste. A central platform at the conference should be provided for the issue of climate change's impact on health. It should be self-evident that health needs to be a key consideration when developing climate policy, but it is all too often clouded by other issues.
From heat waves to floods, from hurricanes to storms, extreme weather events are intensifying and affecting every continent. In Europe, the heat waves of 2003 and 2015 caused thousands of deaths. Likewise, countries such as Russia, India and Australia have not been spared from similar tragedies in recent years. In addition, drought and aridity generate lower agricultural yields and greatly affect the poorest populations. According to the latest IPCC report, climate change will exacerbate food shortages in the regions already most heavily affected by drought. This will only increase the already exorbitant number of six million deaths worldwide every year due to malnutrition.
But the impacts of climate change on the health of individuals and populations go much further. An increase in average global temperatures could mean the expansion of regions conducive to the spread of diseases, for example by extending the survival zone of the anopheles mosquito, which carries malaria. This disease could reach the heights of Kilimanjaro or the Andean highlands, spread in Central Asia and along the Mediterranean coast.
For evidence of what could happen we need only look at the movement of the tiger mosquito, which transmits chikungunya and dengue. Today, there are 50 million cases of dengue each year, and the WHO estimates that more than two and a half billion people are exposed to it. Thanks to climate change, the tiger mosquito can now find the perfect conditions for proliferation in North America and in Europe. At least ten indigenous cases of dengue have been recorded in the last years in France. Cases have been also recognized in Florida, in the United States since 2009 after 75 years of absence.
Climate change also has serious consequences on sanitation, causing migration from the hardest hit global zones. Climate refugees, forced to leave their homes, may be exposed to new diseases. Tuberculosis (TB) is a major risk in this regard - today, TB causes 1.4 million deaths a year and is a common and widespread disease among migrants. In addition, this kind of massive upheaval will almost certainly lead to an impact on the mental health of those who will be forced to abandon their land.
The list of predicted humanitarian disasters and threats to the health of people around the world is a long one. The entire health community needs to be mobilized urgently. We need to engage both public and private stakeholders, starting with life sciences companies, who are responsible for contributing to the advancement of health. If we act now, we can mitigate the consequences of climate change on the health of the world's population. Health must not be excluded from the COP21 agenda.