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Climate Change Poses Severe Threat to Pregnant Women and Children

Pregnant women, infants, and children are facing severe health risks due to climate catastrophes, demanding immediate attention, according to a recent Call for Action issued by United Nations (UN) agencies. The call comes ahead of the global Conference of the Parties (COP28) negotiations on climate change. The document, titled “Protecting Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health from the Impacts of Climate Change,” highlights the neglected, underreported, and underestimated effects of climate events on maternal and child health.

Protecting maternal, newborn and child health from the impacts of climate change: call for action

The Call for Action sheds light on the concerning fact that only a few countries’ climate change response plans acknowledge maternal or child health, emphasizing this as a significant oversight reflecting the inadequate attention given to women, newborns, and children in the climate change discourse.

Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director General for Universal Health Coverage, Life Course at the World Health Organization (WHO), stated, “Climate change poses an existential threat to all of us, but pregnant women, babies, and children face some of the gravest consequences of all. We need to consciously protect children’s futures by taking immediate climate action to ensure their health and survival, while also recognizing their unique needs in the climate response.”

The year 2023 has witnessed a series of devastating climate disasters, including wildfires, floods, heatwaves, and droughts, which have resulted in the displacement of people, crop and livestock loss, and worsened air pollution. The escalating global temperatures have also facilitated the spread of deadly diseases like cholera, malaria, and dengue, posing dire consequences for pregnant women and children, who are particularly susceptible to these infections.

Extensive research reveals that harm can commence in the womb, leading to pregnancy-related complications, preterm birth, low birthweight, and stillbirth. Furthermore, the consequences for children can be lifelong, negatively impacting their physical and cognitive development.

Omar Abdi, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Programmes, emphasized, “Action on climate change often overlooks the fact that children’s bodies and minds are uniquely vulnerable to pollution, deadly diseases, and extreme weather. Ignoring this reality is a grave mistake. The climate crisis jeopardizes every child’s fundamental right to health and well-being. As a collective responsibility, we must prioritize urgent climate action, beginning at COP28. It is high time that children are placed at the forefront of the climate change agenda.”

The Call to Action highlights seven critical measures to address these escalating risks. These measures include sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, climate finance initiatives, and specific inclusion of the needs of pregnant women, infants, and children within climate and disaster-related policies. The agencies also call for increased research to better comprehend the impacts of climate change on maternal and child health.

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Diene Keita, the Deputy Executive Director for Programmes at UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, emphasized the importance of formulating climate solutions that account for the distinct health needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls. “Global climate solutions must support gender equality rather than sacrifice it,” Keita stated.

The Call to Action was officially launched through an online event by WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA, accompanied by an advocacy brief from the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH). The PMNCH advocacy brief further reinforces the Call to Action by presenting specific recommendations for various stakeholders, including governments, global financing mechanisms, donors and foundations, the private sector, and civil society. These recommendations aim to ensure that the health needs of women, children, and adolescents are better addressed in climate policies, financing, and programs.

Rt Hon Helen Clark, PMNCH Board Chair and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, expressed, “Climate change is a major intergenerational injustice of our times. Safeguarding the health and rights of women, children, and adolescents is non-negotiable in the face of the climate crisis. Every stakeholder, from governments to the private sector and civil society, including healthcare professionals, plays a crucial role in advocating for policies and actions that protect the most vulnerable. Integrating the health needs of women, children, and adolescents into climate responses is not only a moral imperative but also an effective strategy with long-term benefits for resilient and healthy societies.”

During the COP28 meetings, delegates will observe the inaugural Day of Health, acknowledging the inseparable link between the well-being of individuals and the planet.

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