A new report by the Health Protection Agency and Department of Health has outlined the possible health effects of climate change on UK citizens, including a small chance that malaria could return to the country’s shores in the next 50-100 years.

There is no doubt that the changing climate will have some effect on the health of the population, and the degree of this potential impact was first explored in a 2002 report by the DH, which has now been updated by a panel of experts to take into account the latest information and estimates on how our climate will change.

The report assesses the possible health consequences if efforts are not made to prevent significant climate change in this century, and it is hoped that the predictions will be used by the government and National Health Service to prepare for any increased burden on resources.

“Climate change is likely to be one of the major challenges that humanity faces this century,” remarked Expert Panel Chairman Professor Robert Maynard. He stressed the importance of assessing the possible health impact and taking any actions that could minimise the consequences, and hailed the publication of this report as “a significant step in that process”.

One effect of climate change already clearly visible is a greater number of heat waves taking place in the UK, which, the report says, “pose an increasing risk to health”. Back in 2003, a killer heatwave swept across Europe contributing to more than 14,000 premature deaths in France alone, and experts predict that, by 2012, there will be a 1 in 40 chance that the South East of England will be hit with a “serious” heat wave causing 3,000 instant deaths.

There is also a “very slight” chance that malaria could return to the South of England sometime in the next 50-100 years, the report claims, although it adds that outbreaks are likely to be rare, affecting just a small number of people. Nevertheless, it stresses that health authorities must remain alert to potential bigger outbreaks on the continent and the migration of more dangerous European strains of mosquitoes in Britain, and that a rapid response to any outbreak will substantially cut down the risk of an endemic in the country.

In addition, there is likely to be a greater incidence of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease as people spend more time outside in the warmer weather, and hotter summers are likely boost the number of foodborne diseases such as salmonella; in fact the report predicts that there will be up to 14.5% more cases of food poisoning a year.

Increased exposure to sunlight will also lead to a growing number of skin cancer, which already kills 2,300 people in the UK each year, according to Cancer Research UK, and another potential effect of more sun could be rise in the incidence of cataracts, a major cause of blindness, the report warns.

How can we prepare?
So how can we prepare itself for this potentially growing burden on health resources? According to the report, the health and social care infrastructure must be made “more resilient” to the effects of heat, gales and floods, and the development of local heat wave, flood and gale plans are also key. Moreover, it is essential that the public is made aware of how to adapt to these climate changes and thereby reduce the risk of harm, it says.

But in parallel to preparing for the health consequences of climate change, it is equally important that work is undertaken to battle the primary causes, such as slashing carbon emissions. Action on this is already being undertaken by the government and the NHS under the Climate Change Bill, which has set the goal of a 60% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

“There is already excellent work happening on the ground; the NHS is working hard to reduce its carbon footprint and engaging with organisations such as the Sustainable Development Commission to do so,” commented Gill Morgan, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation.

“Climate change will have profound implications for the NHS and we continue to urge the government to take up the NHS Confederation's recommendation to include a health expert in the Committee on Climate Change,” she added, and stressed that the NHS “is well placed to be at the heart of positive change.”