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Pregnant women, babies and children face extreme health risks from climate catastrophes which have always been neglected, underreported and underestimated, according to a Call for Action released on Tuesday by UN agencies ahead of the global Conference of the Parties (COP28) negotiations on climate change in Dubai.
The report highlights that very few countries' climate change response plans mention maternal or child health, describing this as "a glaring omission and emblematic of the inadequate attention to the needs of women, newborns, and children in the climate change discourse".
"Climate change poses an existential threat to all of us, but pregnant women, babies and children face some of the gravest consequences of all," said Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director General for Universal Health Coverage, Life Course at the World Health Organization (WHO), in a statement.
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"Children's futures need to be consciously protected, which means taking climate action now for the sake of their health and survival, while ensuring their unique needs are recognised in the climate response," he added.
The year 2023 has been marked by a series of devastating climate disasters. Wildfires, floods, heatwaves and droughts are displacing people, killing crops and livestock, and worsening air pollution. An overheating world is increasing the spread of deadly diseases like cholera, malaria and dengue, with dire consequences for pregnant women and children for whom these infections can be especially severe.
Research shows that harm can begin even in the womb, leading to pregnancy-related complications, preterm birth, low birthweight and stillbirth. For children, consequences can last a lifetime, affecting the development of their bodies and brains as they grow.
"Action on climate change often ignores that children's bodies and minds are uniquely vulnerable to pollution, deadly diseases and extreme weather," said Omar Abdi, Deputy Executive Director for Programmes at UNICEF, in the statement.
"We do this at our peril. The climate crisis is jeopardising every child's fundamental right to health and well-being. It is our collective pollution responsibility to listen and put children at the centre of urgent climate action, beginning at COP28. This is the moment to finally put children on the climate change agenda."
The Call to Action highlights seven urgent actions to address these mounting risks.
These include sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and action on climate finance, alongside the specific inclusion of the needs of pregnant women, babies and children within climate and disaster-related policies.
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