Opening Address of Public Health Response to Climate Change Monday, 16 February 2015

Hon Peter Dunne Associate Minister of Health
Speech: New Zealand Government

16 February 2015 Speech

Opening Address of the Public Health Response to Climate Change - Mitigation, Adaptation and Action, University of Otago, Wellington

Tena koutou katoa, good morning, and thank you for the invitation to speak today at the opening of the 2015 public health summer school course on public health responses to climate change.

I would like to begin by welcoming all of you, including those of you who have elected to attend by internet-based video conference. And I would like to acknowledge the organisers and today's speakers who have travelled from around New Zealand to be here.

Climate change, and its impacts, is widely recognised as one of the most pressing issues of our time.

It is often seen in the context of a major environmental problem, or a human development and population issue. It is all of those things, but I want to focus this morning on climate change as a public health issue.

The 2014 World Health Organisation conference on climate and health made pointed reference to the fact that human beings really are the most important species endangered by climate change.

I have worked on the fringe of climate change issues for a long time. I led the New Zealand delegation to the first international governmental conference on climate change in Nordwijk, Holland over 25 years ago in 1989, and as Associate Minister for the Environment around that time was closely involved in first
stages of the development of New Zealand's response in advance of the major United Nations sponsored conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1993.

More recently, in 2009 I chaired the multiparty select committee which carried out the review of New Zealand's emissions trading scheme. Now, as Associate Minister of Health, I am working with the public health implications of climate change, given my delegated responsibility for environmental health.

And I am pleased at the work the Ministry of Health is currently doing in this space.

The Ministry has funded the development of environmental health indicators on climate change which include hot days - that is the numbers of days reaching temperatures of 25degrees or above - and soil moisture. We are also watching the incidence of diseases like salmonellosis and cryptosporidiosis, as Health experts believe that we will see higher rates of these diseases as conditions gets warmer.

Health officials are also implementing programmes to detect new species of mosquitoes entering New Zealand, that may establish here and cause arboviral diseases. If we do detect new species of mosquitoes early, we are more likely to be able to eradicate them.

Starting in 1998, the Ministry of Health initiated the eradication of the southern saltmarsh mosquito from New Zealand, because this mosquito is able to vector diseases such as Ross River virus disease. This programme took over ten years and cost the Government more than $50 million dollars, but by the time
it ended in 2010 under the stewardship of the Ministry of Primary Industries, it was the first time a saltmarsh mosquito species had been successfully eradicated anywhere in the world.

However, Ross River virus disease is actually one of the less serious mosquito-borne diseases. While it can cause an arthritic condition that can last for weeks or months, some other arboviral diseases cause even worse symptoms and can have high mortality rates.

Warmer and wetter weather increases opportunities for these dangerous mosquito species becoming established in New Zealand if they are not detected on arrival and public health officers are frequently responding to mosquitoes intercepted at the border.

Thankfully most of these are local species, but we have found mosquitoes at the border that would be able to transmit yellow fever, dengue or malaria if they established in New Zealand. Health officials have estimated that a dengue fever outbreak in New Zealand would conservatively cost the country in the order of $250 million.

If 100,000 people were exposed, we would expect around a thousand cases of dengue fever and ten cases of dengue haemorrhagic fever. A hundred people would need to be hospitalised for a week and ten people would need intensive care. At least one person would die. The costs to tourism and business from cancelled bookings would be in the order of five percent of foreign exchange earnings for the year.

So not something to take lightly.

Needless to say I also recognise that the health sector cannot work in isolation. Ministry for Primary industries biosecurity officers ensure aircraft are disinsected and risk goods are fumigated. Ministry of Health officials work with agencies such as the Ministry for the Environment, who are responsible for leading the development, coordination and implementation of 'whole-of-government' climate change policy as it relates to both climate change mitigation and adaptation and, where appropriate, impacts on human health.

So how can the health system, including the Ministry of Health, district health boards and public health units contribute to a 'whole-of-government' response?

You will be hearing about some exciting work happening in district health boards. You will hear about Counties Manukau DHB being certified under the Emissions Measurement and Reduction Scheme, which is part of the carboNZero programme established in 2001 by Landcare Research New Zealand.

Learning from each other is critical. This one-day course is a wonderful opportunity for you all to connect and communicate with each other, to learn from each other and to continue to build on your knowledge and expertise.

I would like to reiterate my best wishes to you all for a productive and informative day ahead. I wish you well in your work and look forward to seeing the fruit of today's discussions becoming part of New Zealand's ongoing response to climate change.

Thank you.