CLIMATE CHANGE CONSEQUENCES: Health hitches

“As climate change alters rainfall patterns and brings deadly, intensified and frequent calamities, it will affect public health.” Senator Loren Legarda, Chair of the Senate Committee on Climate Change

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As global temperature continues to rise due to climate change so are diseases.

“Climate change endangers human health,” declares Dr. Margaret Chan, former director-general of the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO).

“Without effective action, climate change is going to be larger and more difficult to deal with than we thought,” said Dr. Chris Field, who was a coordinating lead author of the report issued by the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Health scientists pointed out that should earth’s thermostat continues to rise, human health problems will also become more frequent and severe.

“The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events will be abrupt and acutely felt,” said Dr. Chan. “Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter and freedom from disease.”

Dr. Paul Epstein, in a recent study entitled Human Health and Climate Change, said that a warming climate, compounded by widespread ecological changes, may be stimulating wide-scale changes in disease patterns.

According to him, climate change could have an impact on health in three major ways by: (1) creating conditions conducive to outbreaks of infectious diseases; increasing the potential for transmissions of vector-borne diseases and the exposure of millions of people to new diseases and health risks; and hindering the future control of disease.

A fact sheet released by the United Nations health agency pointed out this fact: “Climatic conditions strongly affect water-borne diseases and diseases transmitted through insects, snails or other cold-blooded animals.”

Take the case of dengue fever, most common mosquito-borne viral disease of human beings. Before 1970, only nine countries had experienced severe dengue epidemics. The disease is now endemic in more than 100 countries, with Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific regions as among the most seriously affected. According to WHO, there may be 50–100 million dengue infections worldwide every year.

Diseases that used to be controlled are now back. In 2011, 158 000 people from around the world – mostly children under the age of five – died of measles. “More than 95% of measles deaths occur in low-income countries with weak health infrastructures,” WHO deplored.

In the Philippines, measles is back in the news because of the astounding number of new cases. In fact, the Department of Health declared measles outbreaks in five cities in Metro Manila.

Weather-related problems like floods, drought, too much water, and water scarcity are most likely to bring health problems, too.

In recent years, floods have been increasing in frequency and intensity. “Floods contaminate freshwater supplies, heighten the risk of water-borne diseases, and create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. They also cause drownings and physical injuries, damage homes and disrupt the supply of medical and health services,” the WHO fact sheet said.

“Increasingly variable rainfall patterns are likely to affect the supply of fresh water,” the WHO fact sheet said. “A lack of safe water can compromise hygiene and increase the risk of diarrhoeal disease, which kills 2.2 million people every year.”

In extreme cases, water scarcity leads to drought and famine. “By the 2090s, climate change is likely to widen the area affected by drought, double the frequency of extreme droughts and increase their average duration six-fold,” the UN health agency added.

Climate change also means disaster. WHO estimated some 600, 000 deaths occurred worldwide as a result of weather-related natural disasters in the 1990s; some 95% of these were in poor countries.

Another effect of climate is sea level rise. “Rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather events will destroy homes, medical facilities and other essential services,” the WHO said. “More than half of the world’s population lives within 60 kilometers of the sea. People may be forced to move, which in turn heightens the risk of a range of health effects, from mental disorders to communicable diseases.”

Dr. Epstein predicts that “wide swings in weather patterns may become the norm, as sea surfaces and deeper waters continue to absorb and circulate the heat accumulating in the troposphere. At the same time, abrupt changes in climate –hopefully small enough to provide a warning and without widespread disruption – may be in store.’”

In conclusion, he pleads: “We cannot afford to continue ‘business-as-usual’! Changing course will not be easy, but it is necessary. There are costs associated with acting now to slow global warming. However, in terms of future health care, productivity, international trade, tourism, and insurance costs, the savings could be huge.”

For her part, Senator Loren Legarda said: “The state of our health as human beings is under threat but it is not a death sentence – yet. We are alive and able to address the climate crisis. We can no longer deny the link between climate change and public health. As scientists, doctors and health workers act double time to limit the spread of weather-related diseases, we must do our share by addressing the factors that contribute to the spread of these diseases,” Legarda concluded. – (To be concluded)

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