Issue: December 2019
November 14, 2019
2 min read

Children ‘particularly vulnerable’ to health threats from climate change

Issue: December 2019
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Alice McGushin, MSc, MBBS
Alice McGushin

Rising temperatures, declining crop yields, air pollution and other adverse environmental outcomes of climate change pose a threat to the long-term health of children, according to The Lancet’s annual update on health and climate change.

“Climate change is affecting the health of people today, and children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of climate change,” Alice McGushin, MSc, MBBS, program manager for The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, told Infectious Disease News. “Heat waves can particularly affect children under the age of 12 months, as well as children under the age of 5 who are vulnerable to undernutrition due to changes in crop yields, diarrheal diseases and mosquito borne diseases, such as dengue and malaria.”

Combining research from 35 global institutions, the report addressed 41 indicators of climate change in five domains, including climate change exposures and vulnerability; impacts, adaptation, planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement.

The report cited malnutrition as a health concern among infants in particular, noting declines over the past 3 decades in average global yields of winter wheat (6%), soybeans (3%), rice (4%) and maize (4%). Disease transmission among children also is an area of concern, with nine of the 10 most suitable years for dengue transmission occurring after 2000. Earlier this year, researchers estimated that 60% of the globe would be at risk for dengue by 2080, with climate change cited as a small but contributing factor.

Climate change crowd 
The health effects of climate change will be particularly felt by children, experts warned.
Source: Adobe Stock

According to the Lancet report, 4.6% of global emissions come from the health care sector, with a rising trend across major economies.

“There's a range of things that doctors can do and are doing around the world, so that includes policy engagement — meeting with policymakers [and] people who implement policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that do mitigate climate change, as well as those types of policies that are involved to adapt to the health effects of climate change,” McGushin said.

According to the report, deaths related to air pollution reached 7 million in 2016, with ambient fine-particulate matter levels remaining at 2.9 million. Additionally, 2018 marked the second most climatically suitable year for the spread of bacteria-causing diarrheal disease, which produced particularly adverse outcomes in young children and infants.

According to the report, children born today will grow up in a world that is more than 4° warmer than the pre-industrial average.

“Where we're standing now, there are two paths that we can see moving forward — one is if we continue business as usual and continue to emit greenhouse gas emissions, then these health effects from climate change will continue to worsen and will affect the health of all children born today throughout their lives,” McGushin said. “The other scenario is we meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement to keeping global warming to well below 2°, and we see additional health benefits related to reductions in air pollution, as well as increased physical activity through changes in modes of transport.” – by Eamon Dreisbach


Watts N, et al. Lancet. 2019;doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32596-6.

Disclosure: McGushin reports no relevant financial disclosures.