Article by, Nisha Shah
It is no secret that 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth laid out a terrifying outlook for the world we live in today. For those of you who have seen this epic disaster documentary, the urgency of taking action now has become crucial, and to an extent it may already be too late. We can discuss the economic and monetary cost to nations, but this is neither helpful nor progressive, as the cost of human loss to countries, cultures and families is far more profound and outweighs any political and economic consequences, or at least should do. The problem of global warming and environmental change is “no longer a political issue, but a moral issue” (Gore, An Inconvenience Truth, 2006) and should be treated as such. A change in thinking needs to be a collective effort.
Whilst we dwell on this depressive thought, the aftermath of natural disasters – deluges, storms, tsunamis etc. in so many nations, including our own, have not only seen hundreds of thousands of fatalities and casualties, but have impacted the longer-term health outcomes of populations, more so in countries where inequalities in health are at their worst.
In 2008, the UK government Met Office issued a report stating that the world has warmed by 0.75 Degrees Celsius in the last 100 years, and has accelerated in the last 25 years at 0.18 Degrees Celsius per decade. Climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health such as sufficient food, secure shelter, clean air and safe drinking water (WHO, 2013, factsheet No. 266). Urbanisation i.e. increasing and sustained migration, changes the landscape of all nations, and increases environmental and health hazards. All populations are at risk of the effects if climate change. That is why we cannot afford to be complacent any longer, and the time to change was yesteryear.
How does climate change affect population health?
- Extreme heat – high temperature levels raise pollutants in the air, pollen and other allergens increase, and contribute directly to deaths resulting from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, especially among the elderly.
- Natural disasters and change in patterns of rainfall – extreme weather events kill nearly 60,000 people every year. These destruct homes, hospital and medical facilities, and essential services. These have a knock on affect everything from increasing communicable diseases to mental health. Lack of rainfall and scarcity of water causes drought and famine, which increase the prevalence of malnutrition resulting in many deaths. It also compromises hygiene and increases communicable diseases i.e. diarrhoeal conditions.
- Patterns of infection – Floods contaminate freshwater and heighten risks of water-borne diseases, as well as creating breeding grounds for mosquitos and other disease-carrying insects and snails. “Changes in climate are likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases and to alter their geographic range. For example, climate change is projected to widen significantly the area of China where the snail-borne disease schistosomiasis occurs” (WHO factsheet No. 266, 2013).
It’s not all doom and gloom – What are the world’s leaders doing about it?
In May 2014, a World Health Assembly event brought together government ministers and leading scientists to discuss climate change consequences for global health. New evidence, strategic directions and promising initiatives for building health resilience to climate and gaining health benefits from less polluting technologies and development choices were highlighted. The nudge for change has turned into a push and the WHO will have its first global conference in Geneva on health and climate change in August 2014, which will provide the evidence, tools and operational mechanisms to empower the health and sustainable development community to protect health from climate change, and gain the health benefits of climate actions.
In order to protect vulnerable populations from the significant threat of climate change, dramatic changes are needed from policy to the implementation of interventions. “Protecting health from global environmental change requires management at many levels, from the social and economic drivers of environmental change, to the resulting hazards and exposures for human populations.” (http://www.who.int/globalchange/environment/en/, accessed July 2014).
This article was first published in August 2014 edition of FreeSpeech Magazine. To check out the full edition, click here.