China Can Use Big Data to Tackle Climate Health Impacts: Report
Health is becoming an increasing part of China’s climate policy agenda, a new report from the World Economic Forum has found, but technical solutions tailored to the local context should be developed to protect vulnerable populations from climate-sensitive diseases.
Continuously rising temperatures and extreme weather events pose a direct threat to public health, but indirect impacts such as a greater occurrence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases require novel tools, the report says.
Here are three main takeaways from the report, produced in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation and ASK Health Asia’s China research team, and published as part of the Sustainable Development Impact Meetings that began in New York on Monday.
Indirect health impacts
There is substantial evidence showing the relationship between climate change and an increased risk of climate-sensitive diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The government’s major climate change strategy document released last year included a dedicated chapter on human health.
Rising temperatures may influence the distribution of infectious diseases such as dengue fever, while droughts and floods may expose people to polluted water, increasing the spread of cholera.
Extreme climate events may also lead to longlasting impacts that are difficult to foresee, such as population displacement and mental health issues. The report cited a March study of more than 430,000 suicides across the country by Chinese researchers, which found a correlation between suicides and higher temperatures.
“The general impact of climate change on health and disease is probably not a widely discussed topic in China, not to mention mental health,” the WEF report’s lead author Mingqi Song, based in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. “The public can personally feel a heatstroke caused by high temperatures, but it’s hard to notice mental health (effects).”
Precision public health
The report recommends greater adoption of highly specific health interventions using big data and technology to tackle climate-sensitive diseases in China. Also known as “precision public health” (PPH), the approach involves identifying populations vulnerable to certain diseases using a range of information sources and then developing tailor-made interventions in response.
For example, in the case of a pending heatwave, a PPH approach would combine climate forecasts with information about the varying capacities of different communities to withstand the climate event based on socio-economic conditions or educational levels. Officials can then roll out specific interventions for vulnerable populations, Song explained.
“For people who have to work outdoors in high temperatures, we can provide them with products to prevent heatstroke or notify their employers to cease outdoor work during that time. Hospitals can even prepare medicines or facilities in advance for people suffering from heatstroke,” said Song.
With PPH potentially incorporating advanced information-gathering technologies such as wearable devices and genomics, the report says that China’s experience of managing the COVID-19 pandemic using big data technologies may lay the groundwork for broader PPH adoption moving forward.
“There is genuine interest in applying (PPH) in predicting and responding to climate health challenges at different government levels in China,” the report says.
However, just as there was opposition to some of these measures based on privacy concerns during the pandemic, there may be opposition to PPH adoption on the same grounds, the report notes.
Climate health accountability
Though there is potential, the report finds that using PPH to combat climate-sensitive diseases is still a “novel concept” in China, with only nine such tools in place. These include early warning systems for dengue fever and heatwaves in various provinces.
Moreover, these tools are scattered across several provinces and difficult to scale up. A major obstacle is a lack of a nationwide policy coordinating PPH efforts, the report says.
Currently, climate health policymaking powers are spread over different entities such as the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
China is still “in the early stage of PPH tool development,” Zhou Xiaonong, the director of the National Institute of Parasitic Diseases at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is quoted as saying in the report.
There are signs that more officials are recognizing the importance of climate health governance. On Sept. 8, Jiang Zhaoli, the deputy director of the Department of Climate Change Response at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, said at a forum in Beijing that there will be work done on the “top-level design of health policies against the backdrop of climate change.”
In his speech, Jiang mentioned strengthening the surveillance and prevention of climate-sensitive diseases, with specific references to “vulnerable groups” and mental health issues caused by climate change.
Jiang’s remarks are important given his senior rank, said Song. “Given that the vast majority of the PPH tools mentioned in the report are still being driven by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or various meteorological administrations, the statement from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment is no bad sign.”
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: A woman at a hospital in Dongguan, Guangdong province, March 19, 2019. VCG)