Maria Nilsson, associate professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Global Health at Umeå University

Dr Nilsson on climate change:

“Impact on human health could make us wake up.”

Research on the impact of climate change on human health still receives surprisingly low attention. Maria Nilsson SIGHT Fellow and associate professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Global Health at Umeå University, is a scientist ready to change this.

The first time I interviewed her, we spoke about the health perspective and why it is imperative that the consequences of climate change becomes a topic for kitchen table discussions.  This was well before Greta Thunberg became a trailblazer for debate on climate change all the way to kitchen tables as well as global twitter feeds. But still, awareness of how climate change may impact the health of the most vulnerable – infants, children, the elderly, those with a weak immune system and multiple conditions is far too low.

“We have risked human lives”, according to according to Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton and according to the 2009 Lancet Commission report 50 years of medical progress is threatened by climate change. Streams of refugees and the poverty that climate change inflicts on millions of people.

Maria Nilsson started out working with young people’s health in Stockholm suburbs 25 years ago. Today she is much in demand as a speaker at summits all over the world as one of precious experts in climate and health.

– Students often come to me and ask what they should study in order to work with global health in a similar way. I think that no matter what I have worked with I have always been wholeheartedly committed. I have also tried very hard to work with other disciplines and communicate the results of my research in an easily comprehensible way.

In 2012 Maria Nilsson was asked by Indonesia and the Gadjah Mada university to start a collaboration regarding climate change and health, and it was decided to focus on the health sector itself in Indonesia. Later she led a project focusing on Early Warning System for Dengue fever.

– Working with projects like these I am always struck by the learning processes involved – in both directions.

More than 50 scientists working on The Lancet’s initiative contribute important new data on some 40 indicators annually to The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report. Maria Nilsson is one of the co-authors and co-leads the working group on Adaption, Planning and Resilience of health. A new report will be published in Mid-November 2019.

At the turn of the millennium, climate change and health were still considered a young area of research. As Maria was pondering how many researchers were active, Professor Kristie Ebi of the University of Washington, simply replied: “Welcome to the family” and added that theirs was a small field of research boasting a few dozen active scientist.

– Although awareness has increased since, Maria Nilsson cautions that people in the Western world and Europe still doesn’t necessarily think that this is something that concerns us.

– In general, I am met by a fairly low level of preparedness for how health effects will manifest themselves, even in richer countries.

In June EASAC (European Adacemies Science Advisory Council), the common organ for scientific academies in Europe, published the report The imperative of climate action to protect human health in Europe, in part to provide an overview of climate and health in Europe and in part to highlight climate-related health effects for the European population. Maria Nilsson is one of the authors of the report.

– One consequence that we report on is that one of the most widely spread and severe mosquito-borne diseases in the world, Dengue fever, is in danger of being established in Southern Europe, and, with climate change, also starting to sneak north.

Water-borne disease can also be expected to become increasingly common following heavy rains, floods and higher temperatures. Risks will increase for deteriorated food security and vector-born infectious disease. Higher temperatures in brackish waters such as the Baltic Sea increase the risk of vibriosis, an infection caused by a cholera bacterium. The risk of serious infection and blood poisoning is particularly high among elderly and people with impaired immune systems. The infection can be deadly if the right antibiotics are not administered in time, and particularly if awareness of the infection is low in healthcare organisations.

More cooperation and intradisciplinary research are badly needed at many areas. However, there could be bonus effects as radical change is at hand.

– It is obvious that lifestyle changes are needed for the climate as well as our health. What is beneficial in one area is beneficial in the other. For instance, less consumption of red meat could in the long term reduce CO2 transmissions and at the same time be beneficial to our health. Much in the same way as opting to ride a bike or walk instead of carbon-dependent transportation can be beneficial for the health as well as the climate.

Yet, the fact remains that climate change in itself could increase the burden of Non Communicable Diseases, already responsible for the major part of the global burden of disease. Increased temperatures at night increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, kidney stone can become more prevalent due to worsened hydration. Higher temperatures during the day can lead to decreased performance and productivity (10–15 percent according to the EASAC report).

– We need a much higher level of preparedness in society. A rather less languorous attitude, according to Maria Nilsson.

This autumn Maria Nilsson is invited to speak a World Health Summit in Berlin and World Science Forum in Budapest.

What is your most important message when you meet international decision-makers?

– That the health effects of climate change are not something that lies in the distant future, and not something that will take place a long way from where we live. We can see the effects as we speak. I would like to create increased awareness that without firm decisions and prompt action from our decision makers our children and grandchildren are at risk of considerable health effects. We need to act now based on the science already available.

Maria Nilsson was part of the first SIGHT Fellows cohort 2017-2019.

”It has been a privilege to be able to meet other SIGHT Fellows and reflect on issues of global health together with them from different viewpoints and disciplines. Such possibilities of reflection are otherwise rare.  As a SIGHT Fellow I feel that many new doors and contacts have been opened to me.”  

Maria Nilsson is a research fellow and associate professor at the department of Epidemiology and Global Health, Umeå University, Sweden. Her focus is on adaptation research and policy development in ”Climate change and global health”. Dr. Nilsson’s main interest is in public health interventions, health communication and policy.

  • SIGHT Fellow 2017–2019
  • Maria leads several externally funded projects, for ex: “Household Preferences on Lifestyles Transformation for Emission Reduction in Low Carbon Societies” (WP-leader) and “Towards a democratic and equitable health system – building citizens health literacy and intrinsic motivation to becoming co-creators in health promotion” (PI).
  • She was involved in the Lancet Commission “Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health” published in 2015, as integrating editor for health. She co-leads the working group on adaptation, planning and resilience for health in “The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change”. It is an international, multi-disciplinary research collaboration running until 2030 between academic institutions following on from the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change.
  • Maria was co-author of the EASAC-report, June 2019: The imperative of climate action to protect human health in Europe, Opportunities for adaptation to reduce the impacts, and for mitigation to capitalise on the benefits of decarbonisation.

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