The role of climate change in people’s health has scientific merit. The United States is experiencing more and more unusual weather. Studies indicate that even small changes in climate can disrupt the weather conditions, and acclimating to the changes is not easy. Warmer weather, longer heat waves, and hotter days can lead to more serious heat related conditions. The decrease or increase in temperatures can cause massive monsoons, stronger hurricanes, high winds, and killer droughts, which can result to dangerous flash flooding.
Over the years, we have seen that the changes in weather patterns have generated havoc to property and health. This extreme weather can now be seen as a new normal, according to Katharine Hayhoe, a University of Texas climatologist. This does not only indicate more dangerous weather, but will also increase the development and spread of deadly diseases. Warmer temperatures may elevate sea levels, and can cause additional and concentrated air pollution. The early onset of West Nile Virus, Malaria, and Dengue is now prevalent, as well as the emergence of deadlier forms of other diseases.
The impact of climate change on public health largely depends on various factors which includes effective safety, preparedness and public health systems to better forecast disease outbreaks. Other equally important factors include economic status, behavior, gender, and age. Such impacts can vary from region to region, sensitivity of populations, the length of exposure to climate-change impacts, and the ability of society to adapt to changes. Despite the United States’ highly sensitive public health systems, Americans are still affected by climate change, in terms of economic and health concerns.
The Impact of Heat Waves
According to the CDC, heat waves are the deadliest weather-related exposure in the U.S., which are responsible for more deaths per annum than floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes combined. Older people and children are most vulnerable to heat waves with temperatures of more than 90 degrees for several days. Other risks include the lack of air-conditioning, living alone, and the use of certain prescription medications. Furthermore, the ability of the body processes change due to compensate for hotter temperature is another element, noted by scientists.
Climate change can generate more heat waves to the United States. Factors such as increasing population living outside the cities and population aging can aggravate health risks. Studies revealed that if the current emissions remain the same; the heat-related deaths can reach up to 700 a year, and 3,000 to 5,000 per annum on average by 2050.
In 2008, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released a report of the analysis on the climate change and the impact on health and welfare. See the facts:
• The uninsured, old, very young, the disabled, and poor are most likely affected.
• Climate change will result to geographical disparities in U.S. impacts due to regional variations on the distribution of sensitive populations, patterns of changes in climates, and the ability to adapt to climate changes.
• Adaption should begin as soon as possible, starting with better health infrastructure, as well as communities, government agencies, and individual efforts to temper the impacts of climate change on health.
• In addition, WHO also reported that countries with weak health infrastructures will be the least to cope with climate change.
Effects of Extreme Weather
The World Health Organization states that global warming can bring a few benefits such as fewer winter deaths in colder regions and in certain areas, an increase in food production. However, the overall impact of climate change is tremendously negative. Climate change greatly affects health factors, such as safe drinking water, clean air, secure shelter, and sufficient food.
Extreme heat caused by climate change can trigger factors of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, especially among children and the elderly. In Europe, more than 70,000 reported deaths were recorded due to a heat wave in 2003. Higher temperatures raise ozone levels and air pollutants in the air that aggravates respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, which are responsible for 1.2 million deaths every year. In extreme heat, aeroallergen levels increase which triggers asthma, affecting 300 million people. Consequently, the dispersal of molds in humid areas can trigger allergic diseases.
In the United States and worldwide, thousands died due to weather-related natural disasters that tripled since the 1960s. Rising sea levels destroy medical facilities, essential services, as well as homes. Today, half of the world’s population lives within 60 kilometers from the sea. People will be forced to move and in turn, increase the risk of health effects, including mental disorders and communicable diseases. Similarly, the supply of freshwater from the lakes is affected by variable rainfall. The lack of clean water supply can increase the risk of diarrhea disease that kills 2.2 million people a year. To the extreme, water scarcity can lead to drought and famine. Scientists project, that by 2009, climate change can increase the drought areas six fold.
Flooding can increase in intensity and frequency and can contaminate fresh water supplies and enhance the risk of water-borne diseases. Flood-prone areas can create habitats for diseases carrying mosquitoes, such as West Nile virus, malaria, and dengue fever. Increasing flood waters can also cause drowning and other injuries. Flooded agricultural areas can mean destruction of local produce and can lead to malnutrition and famine.
Water-borne diseases and diseases transmitted through cold-blooded animals such as snails are prevalent in climatic changes, which extend the transmission of vector-borne disease in wider areas. For example, climate change can widen the geographical range of snail-borne disease called schistosomiasis in China, and the recent outbreak of West Nile virus on over five counties in California, as well as other states such as in Texas and Michigan.
Malaria is water borne disease, which is greatly influenced by climate change. The malaria carrier Anopheles mosquitoes are highly sensitive to climate changes and kill nearly 1 million people a year, mostly in Africa. Similarly, the Aedes mosquito vector can cover more grounds and lengthen the exposure of the virus that can add 2 billion by the year 2080.
Written by: Janet Grace Ortigas