Reaping the Whirlwind


FEATURE STORY

With man’s folly causing environmental devastation, the dreaded health threats of climate change appear imminent

By Henrylito D. Tacio


Andrew Griffin, in an article which appeared in Independent, wrote: “There is a 90 percent chance that the world’s temperature will rise 2°C to 4.9°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, despite measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Already, there are talks that the Paris agreement is bound to fail. During the Christmas season three years ago, 195 countries from around the world adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. It sets out “a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C.”

There is a 99 percent chance that the climate change will break through the 1.5°C target, some experts believe. “Countries argued for the 1.5°C target because of the severe impacts on their livelihoods that would result from exceeding the threshold,” said Dr. Dargan Frierson, from the University of Washington. “Indeed, damages from heat extremes, drought, extreme weather and sea level rise will much more sever if 2°C or higher temperature rise is allowed.”

There is no turning back when it comes to climate change. It is for real and it is happening right now. In 2008, during the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (which this author attended), Dr. Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia embarked on a metaphor for climate change.

“The climate is like this big ship. We are all on this big ship and the problem is once you hit the brakes it takes a long time for the ship to actually slow down and stop,” Dr. Donner told the participants.

“In our case the ship is the Titanic and we are going to hit the iceberg. It is going to be almost impossible for us not to hit the iceberg at this point. What we need to do is everything we can to put the brakes on, to slow the ship down and move the iceberg a little bit. The time for emission reductions isn’t so much now as it was 20 years ago.”

Health impact

Oftentimes, when people talk about climate change, sea level rise, food shortage, water crisis and biodiversity extinction are mentioned. Unknowingly, climate change has also far-reaching impacts on human health and well-being.

“Changing temperature and rainfall patterns impact crop yield, food and water security, and nutrition,” wrote Mariana Simoes, Elena Villalobos and Nadia Rasheed in a paper published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). “The increased frequency and intensity of extreme events can cause not only injury, but also increase the risk of water-borne diseases, diseases associated with crowding, and vector-borne diseases, as well as psychological and emotional distress related to traumatic events.”

Examples of water-borne diseases are diarrhea, hepatitis A and E, and cholera. Diseases associated with crowding include measles, meningitis, and acute respiratory infections. Malaria and dengue are examples of vector-borne diseases.

“(The impacts of these diseases and other health problems) will be felt especially by vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly and low-income communities,” the three authors wrote.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths each year between 2030 and 2050, just considering risks from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

“Health impacts from climate change are exacerbated in countries where health systems already struggle to manage existing health risks, and capacity to adapt to additional climate change-related health risks is limited,” the three authors pointed out.

“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. “While health emergencies hit quickly, climate change is a slow-motion disaster,” reminds Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director- General.

Wide-scale disease patterns

Dr. Paul Epstein, in a 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; (2) increasing the potential for transmissions of vector-borne diseases and the exposure of millions of people to new diseases and health risks; and (3) hindering the future control of disease.

A fact sheet released by the United Nations health agency pointed out this fact: “Climatic conditions strongly affect waterborne 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. Dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF), the more lethal form, was first recognized during the 1950s. The Philippines reported a DHF epidemic in 1953-45, according to the Philippine Journal of Pediatrics.

Before 1970, only nine countries had experienced dengue and DHF epidemics. Today, the disease is now endemic in more than 100 countries. 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. With climate change going on, more infections are expected in the coming years!

As a result of climate change, 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 2014, some 58,010 cases were reported in the Philippines. Some 110 people lost their lives to the very contagious virus.

“This represented a nine-fold increase in cases in the Philippines compared to 2013, when the total cases were 6,497 and 26 deaths,” Robert Herriman wrote in a news report. “The measles outbreak prompted Philippines health officials to institute a mass vaccination campaign in an effort to get the outbreak under control.”

It also been assumed that the Philippines was the linked to outbreaks in several countries, including Canada. There were also some talks that the Philippines “may be the source of the Disneyland outbreak (of measles) that started in California.”

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

In fact, floods have been increasing in frequency and intensity in most parts of the world. “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,” said a fact sheet circulated by WHO.

“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 diarrheal 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.

Sea level rise

One serious threat of climate change 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,” she concluded.

“We can no longer deny the link between climate change and public health”

Sept 2018 Health and Lifestyle

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