More than 12 million global deaths are associated with environmental risks every year, Pan American health official says

More than 12 million deaths all over the world are associated with environmental risk factors every year, said Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa.

At PAHO’s weekly press briefing on Wednesday, Barbosa highlighted how environment and health are intertwined, ahead of the UN climate summit, COP26. The UN Environment Programme reported this week that while countries have promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions, there’s still a huge gap between those promises and what’s needed to avoid the worse consequences of the climate crisis.

“The health of our planet and the health of our people are interlinked,” Barbosa said, adding that high temperatures and air pollution have led to a rise in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

The PAHO official also said wildfires and droughts have led to crop failure impacting the livelihoods of the agricultural workforce and increased food insecurity in the Americas.

Global leaders will focus on solutions to the climate crisis at COP26 after a summer packed with deadly extreme weather. In addition to wildfires and drought in South America, the US has been battered by drought-fueled wildfires, flooding and hurricanes. China and Germany experienced deadly flooding and Southern Europe battled wildfires of its own.

“Extreme weather and rising temperatures have changed our ecosystems and displaced people from their homes, often forcing humans to infringe on natural habitats and animals to move to more hospitable conditions,” Barbosa said, adding that this has led to an increase in diseases like Zika and Chagas.

“And dengue, which typically follows a seasonal pattern, is being detected outside of its normal cycle as temperatures have warmed and as wet seasons have prolonged,” he said.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization called for governments and policymakers to “act with urgency” on the climate and health crises. The report described climate change as the “single biggest health threat facing humanity,” and outlined 10 recommended climate and health actions.

That report followed the agency’s new air quality guidelines, released in September, which it said could prevent millions of deaths globally each year. Fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, is the tiniest pollutant yet also among the most dangerous. When inhaled, it travels deep into lung tissue where it can enter the bloodstream and can contribute to asthma, cardiovascular disease and other respiratory illnesses.

Those guidelines also support recent research that found air pollution is most likely a contributing factor to health burden caused by Covid-19.

Barbosa gave an overview of Covid-19 in the Americas saying over the last week the region reported 800,000 new Covid-19 infections and 18,000 deaths — the lowest figures in over a year.

“We have reason to be optimistic, but we must remain vigilant,” he said.

Belize is reporting a sharp increase in Covid-19-related deaths, and Paraguay’s Covid-19 cases doubled in the last week, according to Barbosa. In the Caribbean, larger islands like Cuba are seeing a downward trend but smaller islands like Saint Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Anguilla and Saint Vincent and the Grenadine are just now reaching their first pandemic peaks, he said.

Today, he said, nearly 44% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are fully vaccinated — but in Guatemala, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Haiti — less than 20% of people have been fully vaccinated, Barbosa said.

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