Equity must be at the heart of initiatives to address health and climate change, PAHO Director says

7 Apr 2022
Woman in emergency shelter tent

On World Health Day, Dr. Etienne meets with representatives from US Department of Health and Human Services to discuss climate change and health. 

Washington D.C. 8 April 2022 (PAHO) – With environmental risks such as air pollution, inadequate sanitation and extreme weather events responsible for around one million premature deaths in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization Director (PAHO) Carissa F. Etienne has called for policies and interventions that focus on equity. 

Those living in poverty, in precarious housing conditions, and indigenous peoples are at greater risk due to more severe weather events and are more likely to lack the capacity for mitigation of environmental or health risks, the Director said today at a fireside chat to commemorate World Health Day.

The event, organized by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) also included Loyce Pace, Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs at HSS, Melanie Nagakawa, Senior Director for Climate and Energy at the National Security Council, and Dr. Helen Bond, Associate Professor at Howard University.

The PAHO Director highlighted that not only can extreme weather events increase the prevalence of disease and cause injury and death, but the changing climate can also affect health due to food and water insecurity, migration and mental health impact.

“Make no mistake about this, climate change can derail the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and universal health,” Dr. Etienne said.

The PAHO Director also emphasized the importance of a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to addressing the issues around climate change and health equity. “We need to ensure that initiatives, policies and interventions are people-centered, reaching all, regardless of where they reside,” she added. 

As the Americas begins the long road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Etienne called for countries to reflect on the “millions of people who have been left behind” due to lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“We must take extraordinary efforts to ensure that the weakest and most vulnerable are not left behind or left off the climate change and health agenda.”

World Health Day is celebrated on 7 April every year to mark the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization in 1948. The theme for 2022 is “Our planet, our health” and aims to raise awareness of the link between health and environmental challenges, such as climate change.