COP28: Task Force Expert Q&A on Climate Change and Health

The 28th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28),  the most important climate event of the year which kicked off this week, has for the first time a focus on health. Heads of state, key ministers, scientists, advocates and members of civil society – including Task Force representation from our programs focused on trachoma, soil-transmitted helminths, river blindness, and lymphatic filariasis– have gathered in the United Arab Emirates to drive action on climate change and combat its growing effects. A Health Day on December 3 and the first-ever Climate and Health Ministerial will convene ministers of health, environment, finance and related sectors to commit to a roadmap for action to address the burden of climate change on health and healthcare systems. Beyond these key moments, the climate-health nexus will be integrated as a theme throughout the two-week program in Dubai and highlighted through nearly 40 additional events focused on the topic in a Health Pavilion.

The Task Force for Global Health is committed to addressing and mitigating the impact of climate change on health. Task Force representatives Dr. Paul Emerson, Director of the International Trachoma Initiative and Children Without Worms, Dr. Teshome Gebre, Task Force’s Regional Director for Africa, and Dr. Yao Sodahlon, Director of the Mectizan Donation Program will participate in COP28 discussions on the Reaching the Last Mile Forum.

“Since it’s impossible to predict the effects of climate change and health in any particular environment, The Task Force has an important role to play in supporting the development of resilient health systems that are able to respond to the effects of drought, floods and other health related climate disasters,” said Dr. Paul Emerson. “Particularly capacity-sharing with low- and middle-income countries and the support to community- based health workers through NTD and health systems- strengthening programs at The Task Force. Those most affected by climate change and health are the people who live in countries who have contributed the least to climate change. They deserve our support and assistance in alleviating the problems.”

The Task Force at COP28: From left to right - Dr. Paul Emerson, Director of the International Trachoma Initiaitve and Children Without Worms, Dr. Teshome Gebre, The Task Force's Regional Director for Africa, and Dr. Yao Sodahlon, Director of the Mectizan Donation Program at COP28 IN Dubai. Photo courtesy of Paul Emerson.

In addition, four Task Force program leaders – representing the Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination (CGHE), the Respiratory Virus Prevention and Preparedness Programs (RVPP), Brighton Collaboration (vaccine safety program), and MedSurplus Alliance (MSA, which ensures donation of quality essential medical supplies) – share their unique perspectives below on the health impacts of climate change, the crucial actions needed to address them, and how the Task Force’s expertise and global footprint can help address these urgent challenges.  

1. What global health impacts have you noticed or expect to see as a consequence of climate change? What is needed to address these challenges?

Dr. John Ward, Director of CGHE: Climate change is already leading to increased spread of vector-borne diseases like dengue and cholera, because the impact on global air and water temperatures allows pathogens and carriers to spread to new areas that were previously too cold. The impacts on blood-borne viral diseases like hepatitis B and C are felt more indirectly, through increased instability due to the effects of climate change and pressures on health care and other social welfare systems. Because these are systemic problems, systemic solutions are needed to address them. Climate change has dramatically different effects depending on the region, and communities with the fewest resources are facing the greatest pressures. Systems need to be flexible, responsive and have the ability to summon local, national, regional and global support to work together. 

Dr. Joe Bresee, Director of RVPP: As the global climate changes, several impacts are being felt simultaneously, especially in highly vulnerable populations. Disease transmission is shifting with insect vectors expanding outside of their traditional geographic ranges, notable changes in previously predictable seasonality of endemic diseases, and shifts in the vulnerability of individuals due to climate effects on underlying health conditions. In addition, the increasing disturbance of weather patterns and rates of severe weather events is already beginning to create climate refugees who are now separated from traditional support networks. The weather itself is affecting health directly with shortages of water, frequent heat events, and floods spreading waterborne diseases.

These impacts have significant implications for public health, requiring a reevaluation of our approach to disease detection and outbreak surveillance. Strong surveillance systems will continue to be critical, and must be improved to be flexible enough to detect the early appearance of novel pathogens, identify shifts in transmission patterns of endemic diseases, and incorporate weather events such as extreme heat and flooding. This will allow for earlier response, saving lives.

Dr. Bob Chen, Director of the Brighton Collaboration: The current climate crisis increases the risk of pandemics and the need for new vaccines to control the new pathogens. By harmonizing the safety assessment of these new vaccines, which is the work of the Brighton Collaboration’s Safety Platform for Emergency Vaccines (SPEAC) project, we can help ensure their public acceptance and uptake.

Lori Warrens, Director of the MedSurplus Alliance: Natural disasters and poverty have long been the primary drivers of the humanitarian aid requests that MSA members receive, particularly for low-income countries. Climate change projections predict increasing natural disasters and economic crises affecting low- and middle-income countries. The pandemic revealed the inequities and weaknesses of many healthcare systems. Medical product donations provided by MSA members and other NGOs are essential to address immediate and long-term impacts by addressing temporary healthcare needs and helping build the capacity and resiliency of healthcare systems around the world.

2. What expertise is The Task Force providing to respond to these challenges?

Dr. Joe Bresee, Director of RVPP: Four Task Force programs have joined forces to strengthen early warning surveillance  in African and Asian countries as implementing partners for  the Global Fund’s Strengthening Outbreak Notification and Response (SONAR) project. These systems are currently being leveraged to alert health system leaders about emergent disease threats. They could be adapted to identify signals that may indicate emerging novel pathogens or changes in known pathogen behavior. This surveillance approach will engage community members as key responders and empower them to report unusual health events promptly.

Dr. Bob Chen, Director of the Brighton Collaboration: Through its work on SPEAC project, Brighton Collaboration provides tools and services to support the vaccine community in ensuring the safety of vaccines against pandemic pathogens. Currently, SPEAC experts are providing guidance to developers of vaccines to prevent Lassa fever, Chikungunya, MERS, Rift Valley fever, Nipah virus and Ebola , all diseases that are likely to increase with climate change. SPEAC has the potential to support the development of vaccines against additional pathogens in the future.

Lori Warrens, Director of the MedSurplus Alliance: MSA facilitates cross-sector initiatives that expand equitable access to healthcare by ensuring sustainable standards for donated supplies and essential medicines. As one example of the linkage to environmental health, the MSA initiative  Kits4Life addresses pharmaceutical clinical research staff concerns about the environmental impact of destroying unused lab supplies. In the past two years, Kits4life members have donated just over 46,000 supplies, devices, and equipment to respond to natural and man-made humanitarian crises. 

3. The Task Force works closely with partners in everything we do. What related activities are your teams working on to help countries around the world mitigate the impacts of climate change?

Dr. Joe Bresee, Director of RVPP: RVPP is working on pandemic preparedness and building vaccine delivery systems, which are critical for protecting populations, as the risk of pandemics and epidemics has increased due to warmer temperatures and displaced populations, who sometimes are forced to live in overcrowded conditions that lack access to clean water and sanitation. 

Dr. John Ward, Director of CGHE: At CGHE, we are working on pandemic preparedness as it relates to hepatitis elimination, which is an important element of climate change response and offers many lessons that can be applied to climate change. Learn more in our pandemic preparedness research and report here.


In addition to the activities referenced above, The Task Force’s Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET) program leads a working group to orientate, educate and equip field epidemiology training programs (FETPs) to respond to climate-related health impacts.  And The Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE) program has reported on the linkage between compassion and the Sustainable Development Goals to demonstrate how compassion can play a crucial role in motivating a positive response to climate change. FACE and partners advocate that the climate crisis is inherently an ethical issue and one that greatly impacts health equity. 

With a long history of building coalitions to strengthen health systems, ensure access to vaccines and eliminate diseases, The Task Force will continue to engage in conversations and strategies to tackle the effects of climate change on global health.

Task Force and WHO colleagues from left to right: Dr. Camilla Ducker, WHO Senior Advisor, Dr. Ibrahima Socé Fall, WHO Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases, Dr. Teshome Gebre, Task Force Regional Director for Africa, and Dr. Yao Sodahlon, Director of the Mectizan Donation Program. Photo courtesy of Paul Emerson.

Header Photo: Photo Courtesy of Cloud 9 Media for the Mectizan Donation Program

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