Climate change may disproportionately harm children’s health, according to new research in Pediatrics. And the numbers are shocking. Researchers suspect that kids may bear up to 88 percent of the disease burden as temperatures and sea levels rise due to human-caused climate change. Especially worrisome is the projected increase in deaths due to malaria, diarrhea, and nutritional deficiencies — three conditions that hit children the hardest.
“The basic message is that climate change is occurring, and I think it disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations,” co-author on the paper Kevin Chan, chairman of pediatrics at Memorial University in Canada, told CNN. “That includes children.”
Although we often think of climate change as ravaging reefs, melting glaciers, and killing off endangered species, scientists have known for some time that global warming will harm human health. Climate change is projected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year from heat stress, malnutrition, and the spread of infectious diseases by 2030, according to the World Health Organization. And after the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its formal policy on climate change and children’s health in 2015, then-president Sandra G. Hassink told reporters that “climate change is a rising public health threat to all children in this country and around the world.”
In this new paper, Chan and colleagues rehash older claims—catastrophic hurricanes are climate-related events that disproportionately harm kids; children are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution than adults—but they also introduce a handful of new concerns. The researchers note that deaths due to diarrhea, malaria and nutritional deficiencies among children under the age of five now account for 38 percent, 65 percent and 48 percent of all global deaths, respectively, and demonstrate that climate change will increase the incidence of all three. Fatal diarrhea is usually caused by waterborne bacteria that thrive in hot climates, the authors write, and malaria comes from a parasite that hitches a ride on warm-weather-loving mosquitoes. Meanwhile, Chan writes, high temperatures increase crop blights and make it harder to grow food, contributing to malnutrition. Children are the most likely casualties.
“The danger to children is real,” Mona Sarfaty of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, who was not involved in the study, told CNN. “The doctors in our societies are seeing these problems today, and they will undoubtedly get worse if we don’t decisively address climate change.”