UNICEF: Children bear brunt of climate health impacts

All this week RTCC and Healthy Planet UK will be exposing the real health impacts of climate change that all too often are absent from the debate. In this post, guest contributor and UNICEF policy officer Jazmin Burgess explains why children are markedly hit harder.

By Jazmin Burgess

When talking about the impacts of climate change on health, it is impossible to overlook the specific impacts on child health.

Climate change is increasingly putting children all over the world, but especially in the most vulnerable countries, at risk. Despite being least responsible for its causes, children are bearing the brunt of its impact.

In the context of health this is highly pertinent. It is estimated that the increased range for dengue fever due to climate change suggest the population at risk could increase to 3.5 billion by 2080 – children will be most at risk in this situation.

Negative impacts on childrens’ health limits their opportunities at full development, their ability to live healthy lives and contribute and benefit fully in society.

That climate change is intensifying and increasing such trends presents an important rationale for action on climate change – in the form of adaptation to help protect children and emissions reduction to stop such trends getting worse.

Children displaced by flooding in Pakistan were placed at heightened risk to a number of diseases (Source: UN Photo/UNICEF/ZAK)

The interrelationship between climate change and child health can be seen through two sets of impacts – direct and indirect.

Direct impacts refer specifically to climate impacts on health events- such as the increased prevalence of diseases like malaria or water borne diseases, of which children are the most vulnerable.

Indirect impacts refer more to the way that climatic changes can indirectly affect child health. For example, changing rainfall patterns is already limiting crop production in sub-Saharan Africa which in turn is leading to increased malnutrition in children.

This has a range of knock on effects on health – causing stunted growth and weak immune systems in children, as well as longer term development impacts on children such as poor concentration in school.

It is estimated that by 2050, 25 million more children will be malnourished due to climate change.

Direct impact 

Looking at some of the direct impacts of climate change on health, specific trends can already be seen that are affecting children, trends which will only get worse and more intense as climatic changes continue.

UNICEF research in East Asia highlighted that the changing climate is leading to increased rates of communicable and non-communicable disease which is affecting children.

Organisations such as the WHO and World Food Programme have also recently started research that highlights some of the risks that climate change is posing through diseases and ‘health events’ that hit children hardest.

One of the most concerning impacts that climate change can have on child health in vulnerable countries is the potential to change the presence of malaria vectors.

Changing weather patterns lead to new areas that are wetter and more hospitable to malaria carrying mosquitoes have the potential to take malaria to new areas where there is no built up immunity, and where children are highly at risk.

UNICEF research in Kenya in 2010 showed that an estimated that 660,000 deaths occur each year due to malaria, 86% of these are children. The challenge that climate change presents for malaria, therefore presents an urgent challenge for children as well.


Looking more at the indirect impacts of climate change on child health, a range of worrying trends can be seen.

The role of climate change in increasing the frequency and intensity of natural hazards such as cyclones and extreme flooding can increase the risk faced by children to water borne diseases, and health risks such as contaminated food and water supplies.

In Mongolia, UNICEF research in 2011 showed that although 14% of deaths of children younger than five years are already caused by diarrhoeal disease, the highest rates of incidence of dysentery and salmonella in recent years occurred between 2001 and 2003. This coincides with a severe drought in which springs and small rivers dried, likely linked to climate change.

Justus, a 14 year old boy from Northern Kenya highlighted the impact that climate change driven water scarcity is having on child health in Kenya:

“Water is also scarce because of lack of rain. Those living far from the lakes walk so far in search of water. The water is dirty and contaminated and people get bilharzia.”

RTCC Video: UNICEF’s Stephanie Hodge on the role education can play in helping children cope with climate change

Similarly, changing rainfall patterns that cause extreme droughts, such as those seen in recent years in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, will intensify and increase malnutrition rates in children.

UNDP states that children aged two or under who were born during a drought year and were affected by it, are 72% more likely to be stunted.

At the recent Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva, a strong focus was placed on the increasing impact that climate driven disasters are having on health trends in regards to children. This includes increased diseases and illness that often affect children worse due to their weaker physiology.


Finally, it is worth noting that emissions themselves, which contribute to climate change, can also have specific impacts on child health.

It is here that it becomes clear that climate change is affecting the health and well-being of children in both developed and developing countries.

Heavy pollution can cause higher rates of asthma amongst children, as well as other respiratory diseases, particularly in urban areas. Research by the University of Southern California has indicated that children living in heavily polluted areas can see an 80% decrease in their lung capacity.

This shows that a transition to a low carbon economy and further action on emission reduction can also deliver health and well-being benefits to children everywhere.

The impacts of climate change on child health highlight yet another way in which children are and will continue to bear the brunt of climate change now and in the future.

There is an urgent need to take action on climate to ensure that children are protected from its impacts and that emissions are reduced, so that today’s children and future generations do not see their health and well-being sacrificed as a result of climatic changes.

Jazmin Burgess is UNICEF UK’s Climate Change Policy and Research Officer, working on building the case for action to protect children from climate change.

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