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Vulnerable population

Researcher finds children disproportionately affected by climate change


By Rebecca Rebeiro

Children’s health and security are particularly threatened by climate-related natural disasters, says a newly published paper.

Doctor with stethoscope
Dr. Kevin Chan
Photo: Submitted

When tasked with identifying issues that affect children’s health worldwide, Dr. Kevin Chan, chair of pediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, could think of no bigger issue than climate change.

Broadly recognized to be caused by greenhouse gases, climate change can be attributed to increases in global surface temperature and rising sea levels.

This represents the most significant global health challenge faced today, particularly for children, according to Dr. Chan’s paper in the journal Pediatrics, co-authored by Dr. Rebecca Pass Philipsborn.

“This paper is a call for policy-makers and pediatricians to be aware that global climate change is worsening and will disproportionately affect children more,” said Dr. Chan. “We need to pay attention, because they’re the most vulnerable population.”

Magnifying social disparities in health care

Around the world, children are estimated to bear 88 per cent of the burden of disease due to climate change, with poor populations disproportionately affected, the paper states.

Children living in predominately low-income countries face environmental and social hardships, which are then further impacted by the effects of climate change.

Young child being examined by doctor in an office
New research from Dr. Kevin Chan cites that children are proportionally affected by climate change.
Photo: Submitted

Many lack access to basic natural resources, such as food and clean water, due to droughts and floods that exacerbate agricultural systems.

A projection by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests there will be 77,000-131,000 additional deaths in children under the age of five from climate-related under-nutrition in 2030.

Extreme weather-related instability

According to Dr. Chan’s paper, natural disasters due to extreme weather in developing nations displace children and their families.

This instability can cause exposure to numerous health risks, such as infection, stress and abuse. Breakdown of communities also limits availability to medical supplies and assistance.

“We need to pay attention, because [children are] the most vulnerable population.” — Dr. Kevin Chan

The spread of infectious diseases is another serious concern. Higher temperatures can increase the occurrence of bacterial causes of diarrhea, which WHO states will be the cause of death of 48,000 children under the age of 15 by 2030.

Dr. Chan also suggests that “other diseases like Ebola in sub-Saharan Africa may also be related to climate change, though the issue is very complex.”

A call to action

Undeterred by the lack of political response, Dr. Chan is working with a group of pediatricians to quantify the impacts of climate change on children, and model ways to mitigate these effects.

At the end of the paper, Dr. Chan implores his colleagues that “collective inaction may be to the detriment of those we dedicate our careers to protecting.”

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