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Five Questions With…Dr Maria Neira

5 April 2022


To mark World Health Day 2022, we hear from Dr. Maria Neira on what inspired her interest in climate change and health, how we can transform health systems to help ensure a #HealthierTomorrow, and what practical steps health workers can take to advocate for bold action on climate change.

1. What inspired your interest in climate change and health?

After being trained in a very sophisticated hospital in Paris, I went to work with Médecins Sans Frontières in Central America in a refugee camp. Although I was very much focused on my clinical work, soon I realised that you cannot keep treating the same asthmatic child without understanding why he is so often developing these asthma crises. This is where I discovered how important it is to work upstream. So, my interest in climate change came as a result of my interest in all of the determinants of health, including all the environmental risk factors that now cost more than 13 million deaths every year. For me, the potential to do something on public health by reducing the causes of climate change is huge; this is what motivates me. The health of our planet is the best guarantee for the health of our people. I’m working on climate change to protect people’s health more than anything else.

2. The climate crisis is one of the most urgent health emergencies we face. How is the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization responding?

For us, when we say the climate crisis, we refer to the causes of climate change. If you look at the causes of climate change, they are very much overlapping with the causes of air pollution, for instance. Combustion is responsible for both global warming and air pollution and this pollution is killing seven billion every year. We first need to make sure that we have the evidence demonstrating all of this and second, we need to disseminate that evidence to influence countries and advocate for accelerating energy transition; moving to renewable, clean sources of energy is very much about better access to water and sanitation. We are making sure that we have interventions that are proven to effectively reduce climate change, reduce pollution and promote health, while making sure that we can monitor and promote this within influencing countries and sectors to stop the destruction of the environment and ecosystems that is so damaging for our health.

3. In your view, what is the significance of World Health Day?

This year, it is extremely relevant and timely to talk about the very strong connections between our planet and our health. Particularly because we are about to get out of a pandemic, where again, if you look upstream, you will find deforestation, aggressive agricultural practices, and the trade and consumption of animals among the causes of this situation. If you stop the destruction of the ecosystem at the beginning, you will prevent or at least reduce the probabilities of a new pandemic. We must reduce our vulnerability as a society and invest in development that will be good for our health, for our economy, for reducing inequities and for our society in general.

4. How can we transform health systems to help ensure a #HealthierTomorrow, particularly for the world’s most vulnerable populations?

I think that the health sector, and health systems at large, can inspire others and lead by example by putting the scientific evidence on the table, raising our voice and saying: this issue is not just environmental, it is fundamentally affecting our health. In addition to that, we can raise our voice to influence different sectors and accelerate transitions in the way we select our sources of energy, or the way we build our cities, or the way we produce our food. At the same time, we can decarbonize the health system to reduce our own emissions and contribute to the global movement.

5. What steps can health workers take to advocate for bold action on climate change?

As health professionals, we have a huge responsibility to ensure a healthy and green recovery after the pandemic, pushing for countries to take wise decisions and make investments that will protect our health. In the health sector, our function cannot just be curative or treating patients in the hospital. Any time somebody has a respiratory disease, or lung cancer, or a stroke, or even a problem with cognitive development we need to ask ourselves, what were the risk factors for that? When you realise that the risk factors are very much related to the environment, you need to raise your voice and make sure that everybody understands that. You want to cure your patient but more than anything, you want your patient not to become sick in the first place. You want that person and your population to be healthier, and for that we need to change many things in our society

This post was written by:

Dr Maria Neira - Director, Public Health and the Environment Department, World Health Organization


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