Health and climate changes

Rousing the Rabble column by Roy Ronaghan, Sept. 23 Grand Forks Gazette.

The health issues that North Americans will have to deal in the future may be different in many respects from those that our medical profession treats today. The World Health Organization (WHO) is warning us that we could soon be dealing with diseases that have never existed in our part of the world.

Climate change has made the difference. With a global warming trend that is decades old lethal and rapidly spreading infectious diseases such as malaria and Ebola and chronic diseases such as diabetes are reasons for us to pay close attention.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine on globalization, climate change and human health states, “The new form of globalization is an interconnected world and global mass culture, often referred to as a ‘global village’.”

Globalization is now an umbrella term used to describe the changes that societies and the world economy have undergone since the 19th century. The term covers just about everything in our lives and includes cross-border trade, investments, cultural exchanges and human health.

A couple of paragraphs from a collaborative report by The Lancet, a peer reviewed medical journal and the University College of London Institute for Global Health Commission identify the threats of living in the global village.

“This report outlines the major threats—both direct and indirect—to global health from climate change through changing patterns of disease, water and food insecurity, vulnerable shelter and human settlements, extreme climate events, and population growth and migration.”

“Although vector-borne diseases will expand their reach and death tolls, especially among elderly people, will increase because of heat waves, the indirect effects of climate change on water, food security, and extreme climate events are likely to have the biggest effect on global health.” (Ticks are vectors for Lyme disease and mosquitoes are vectors for malaria.)

Heat waves are a common cause of weather related deaths—more so in cities than rural areas—because of the heat sinks created by large concrete structures and paved streets. During heat waves, ground-level ozone is created when several volatile gases combine to produce a toxic mix that can reduce lung function and inflame airways. Children and elders are most vulnerable.

When we know that the potential impacts of climate change on human health are of such magnitude, why are we not doing more to reduce our output of greenhouse gases (GHG)? Indeed it is a conundrum.

Scientists think the answer to the question is a reframing of the message with a focus on human health. Their hope is that a different message will convince people to reduce their GHG emissions in large enough quantities to make a difference.

The WHO has said that climate change is a critical public health problem. Existing diseases and conditions can worsen and new pests and pathogens can be introduced into new regions and communities. Most vulnerable to the new diseases will be the elderly, the poor and those with existing health conditions.

Not much is said about the stress these new diseases will place on health care systems in North America but we can assume it will be huge as diseases that have never before been on the list are treated.

The warming of the globe and the climate change that has accompanied it is not about to suddenly cease. After decades there is not much that can be done to change what is happening. The impacts on human health that emerge as time passes will be a challenge and it makes sense that people everywhere become as well informed about them as possible.

There is a wealth of information on climate change and its health impacts available on line. Good sources are the Lancet, published in Britain, and the New England Journal of Medicine published in Massachusetts. A paper published in 2010 by The Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health called A Human Perspective on Climate Change makes interesting reading.

 

Such documents are enlightening and deserve our attention.