The most vulnerable of the vulnerable: how climate change impacts children in developing countries


It seems, lately, that every time we turn on the news, there is another natural disaster. Hurricane after a hurricane in North America, historic rainfall in South Asia, and numerous mudslides across Africa 1. You might as well get used to the rise in extreme weather and disasters, as scientists expect climate change to continue to alter the magnitude, frequency, and overall pattern of “natural hazards” 2. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress 3.

Although climate change affects everyone, certain populations suffer disproportionately, one being children, especially in developing countries (here: lower-middle-income countries, LMIC). Children are vulnerable by nature. First socially, they rely on a caregiver and have difficulties expressing themselves 4. Also biologically, they have weaker immune systems 5 and poor temperature regulation 6.

Children are also at greater risk statistically. Children constitute roughly half of all persons affected by disasters 2. In 2007, Save the Children estimated that over the next decade, up to 175 million children worldwide will be affected by climate change-related disasters 7.

The impacts climate change has on health can be categorized into primary, secondary, and tertiary, ranging from injury, pollution, or food and water shortages, respectively 8. Now, amplify these health risks through the lack of government aid 9, poor infrastructure 3, and overall poverty of developing nations.

Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) dropped 455 mm (17.9 in) of rain on Metro Manila in a span of 24 hours on 26 September 2009. A month's worth of rainfall in a single day washed away homes and flooded large areas, killing hundreds and stranding thousands in the city and nearby provinces.

Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) dropped 455 mm (17.9 in) of rain on Metro Manila in a span of 24 hours on 26 September 2009. A month’s worth of rainfall in a single day washed away homes and flooded large areas, killing hundreds and stranding thousands in the city and nearby provinces.

Primary Risks

The most direct risks of climate change are various physical and mental injuries. A study in India found that children under age five who had experienced a natural disaster within the past month were 9-18% more likely to suffer an acute illness such as fever, respiratory illness, or diarrhoea 5  which kills over 500 000 children under age five annually 3.

Extreme heat is another concern already faced by many developing nations, which tend to have warmer climates than developed nations to begin with. The inadequate infrastructure in poorer nations, including lack of air conditioning and poor ventilation, make the effects much greater 10. A study found that in developing countries, for every 1°C increase, the mortality rate for adults increased by 2-3%, and for children by 50-100% 11.

Heat raises child mortalities in multiple ways, though most heat-related deaths are due to cardiovascular failure, which is commonly exacerbated by respiratory failure 6. Blood disorders and digestive system failure are common among infants, who are particularly vulnerable to heat.  Infants have poor body temperature regulation with extra fatty tissue and reduced sweating compared to children and adults 6. In fact, heat has been linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). When an infant is covered up in the heat for a long period, such as overnight, the child is not always able to cool sufficiently, leading to brain trauma 6.

Secondary Risks

Ecological disruptions from climate change increase aeroallergens and pollutants 12 and alter the length of disease transmission cycles 13. Vector-borne diseases have spread, as altered climate leads insects and animals to new places. Children in highlands, for example, are at new risk of diseases such as malaria as the temperature rises 2. Communicable diseases, again, affect the children disproportionately. In 2015, roughly 70% of malaria deaths were children under 5 years of age 14. Wealthy countries, however, have the resources to control and combat most infectious diseases.

Tertiary Risks

A stable childhood is important for proper social, physical, and cognitive development. Natural disasters have been found to alter a child’s health trajectory, especially in developing countries. For example, families have delayed or skipped immunizing their children for the need to divert finances for recovery, or from difficulty accessing a clinic 5.

The agriculture-based economies of most developing nations make the financial and political risks of climate change that much greater. Tensions arise from financial devastation and scarcity of resources 13. A little more detail would be nice. It is a strong point. But a little clarification as to the link between agriculture, politics/finance, and climate.

A Global Issue

As the number of lives claimed by climate change continues to grow, health professionals worldwide must avert their attention and resources towards vulnerable populations. Poverty stricken children are at high risk in particular 2. Developing nations tend to be more vulnerable to climate change geographically, as well as in terms of finances and infrastructure 3. The interdisciplinary action is necessary to reduce further environmental degradation, improve infrastructure, and to specialize health professionals.


Jamie Linnea Luckhaus is a Swedish-American MPH student at Lund University.  She has an interdisciplinary background as a certified U.S. Emergency Medical Technician with a B.A. in Global Affairs and Development and experience serving at a resettlement agency. Her main interests include disaster preparedness and response and vulnerable health populations.


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