Warning: Climate change is harmful to your health

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Some people believe that climate change is a hoax.  Skeptics claim the earth’s warming is actually caused by natural cycles consistent with millennial-scale patterns rather than man-made emissions. Whatever is causing it, something is triggering changes in our climate.

Assuming that climate change is happening and a predicted rise in temperature of at least two degrees Centigrade is inevitable, will there be health impacts to consider? What do these potential (and actual) impacts look like, and what should the health sector do in response? If the problem of climate change is a clear and present danger, how shall we adapt in the area of human health?

Years ago, one did not need air conditioners when riding in cars in Metro Manila. Nowadays, people can barely survive commuting without the use of air conditioners to stay cool and to guard against nasty pollution. Because of increased temperatures coupled with rising populations in congested urban locales, the demand for cooling mechanisms will be ever increasing. Air conditioners have become a basic need, particularly for the very young and the very old. More air conditioners, usually powered by fossil fuels, will add to carbon emissions and lead to more warming.

Pollution is made up of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter from combustion and vehicle exhaust. These enter the respiratory tract, triggering asthma and acute respiratory infection in children, which leads to the development of chronic obstructive lung diseases in adults. The burden of disease is high; the World Health Organization estimates that 2.5 percent of all productive life years are lost worldwide to pollution.

Heat strokes are rather common in times of high ambient temperature. The rise in temperatures can even transform formerly temperate zones into tropical ones. This may mean that mosquitoes which, in the past, could not survive in those places can now carry malaria and dengue into those zones.

Water sources and quality can be adversely affected, as well. The changes in climate have brought either flooding or extreme drought to varying locales. As a result, food security will become an issue, food prices may rise, and both of these factors may lead to increased incidences of malnutrition, stunting, and decreased mental abilities, particularly in poor growing children. No amount of pharmaceutical intervention or food supplementation can reverse these conditions.

What happens in case industrial wastes leach into waters that provide food for aquaculture? Flooding may contaminate the water table and lead to sickness such as diarrhea. Though perhaps too expensive to adopt, each household should consider having self-contained water recycling equipment to purify water.  Furthermore, wading in flooded streets is associated with leptospirosis, an infection caused by a parasite from infested animal urine; this disease can cause acute renal failure.

Separating potable water for drinking from non-potable water for toilet and other uses might teach the populace to be more judicious in conserving and using water. This is an aspect of urban planning that needs serious consideration.

Because of shifting soil due to erosion, the public is at high risk for accidents and injuries from landslides.  Shifting weather conditions and unpredictable typhoon patterns can also contribute to disasters and further injuries from infrastructure damage. We can adapt by building stronger, better, and more resilient hospitals, housing, and roads.

There is merit to having the health sector develop information kits for the public to be aware that climate change will likely have serious impacts on health. Clinical scientists are examining how instructions on disease detection and treatment of medical conditions can be included in current medical education, for doctors and medical personnel to know about climate change impacts and the need to develop measures to help the public adapt to the changing environment. Health care professionals need to know of differential diagnoses when they see a patient suffering from a common illness, and they must consider environmental factors emanating from climate change. Health programs should prepare health professionals and their corresponding health systems to deal with new climate-related diseases.

Public health is already guided by the principles of promotive, preventive, curative, and rehabilitative interventions. The addition of preparedness certainly will complete the necessary perspective to achieve human health security, and for public health programs to deal with the impacts of climate change.

Illustration by Paul Fabila

Discover more on the effects of climate change to one’s health in Asian Dragon Magazine’s February-March 2017 issue, available for download on Magzter.

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