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Ebola isn't the only public health emergency, British Medical Journal tells WHO

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Deaths from Ebola 'will pale into insignificance' compared to those from climate change, editorial says

Jim Gathany / CDC

The British Medical Journal called on the World Health Organization today to declare a public health emergency. Not because of any specific disease, but because climate change will cause an 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, by the WHO's own estimate.

"WHO has shown important leadership on climate change but has stopped short of declaring a global public health emergency," writes BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee, in an editorial. But the evidence that climate change poses a "threat to human health and survival" is strong, she writes, and it's time to act.

Dwindling fresh water supplies, increased soil erosion, heat stress, malnutrition, malaria and extreme weather will have catastrophic effects on human health, if humanity doesn't act fast. The BMJ therefore hopes to change attitudes within the healthcare system, which is itself "a major emitter of greenhouse gases," Godlee writes, due to the amount of waste it produces and the energy it consumes.

doctors should "become effective advocates against climate change."

To get the point across, the journal published a climate change guide in early September that addressed itself to doctors, but did not contain information about medicine or healthcare. Instead, the guide answered questions such as "Is global warming unequivocally the result of human activity?" (answer: for the most part, yes), and "What will future climate change be like?" (answer: further and more drastic changes are expected). The guide also called on health professionals to explain climate change to their patients in terms of its health consequences.

It’s "pure climate science," Godlee says, "because if we doctors are to become effective advocates against climate change, a better understanding of the science will help us."

Given the Ebola crisis, it's understandable that WHO has yet to declare a public health emergency, Godlee writes. But it shouldn't put this off any longer. "Deaths from Ebola infection, tragic and frightening though they are, will pale into insignificance when compared with the mayhem we can expect for our children and grandchildren if the world does nothing to check its carbon emissions." So if we truly want to prevent such a catastrophe, she writes, "action is needed now."