Health effects of climate change and the public health role

Climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather over periods of time that range from decades to mil-lions of years. WHO estimates tha…

On the occasion of World Environment Day 2011, I went through a practical guide book, developed by American Public Health Association (APHA) called the ‘Climate change: Mastering the public health role’. This practical guide book is a translation of a six-part webinar series hosted by the APHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In this writeup, I will be focusing on the health effects of climate change and the role of public health professionals, based on this guidebook.

Climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather over periods of time that range from decades to millions of years. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising of global average sea level.” So, the climate change is happening, it is real and there are health risks—around the globe. WHO estimates that climate change is already linked to more than 150,000 deaths each year. Moreover, it estimates 160,000 additional deaths from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea, flood and heat waves in 2000 as a result of climate change in the poorest developing countries in southwest Asia and southern Africa.

Climate change impacts could lead to severe, adverse effects on health through both direct and indirect means. Potential, widespread adverse health effects could include: heat stress-induced illness and death; air pollution-related health effects; infectious disease, including water- , food-, vector- and rodent-borne diseases; malnutrition; extreme weather-related health effects; and storm surge-related drowning and injuries.

In addition to the previously discussed factors affecting health, ground-level ozone is known to be a harmful air pollutant that is formed from fossil fuel emissions (e.g., vehicle exhaust), sunlight and higher temperatures. The guide book stated that “down-scaling climate and air quality projections for air pollutants such as ozone show that in the future, climate change can lead to an increase in ozone levels and a potential increase in ozone-related deaths”. At the same time, rising carbon dioxide levels may lead to greater pollen production by weeds and trees, which could cause increased allergies and respiratory-related illness.

Public health practitioners have a key role to play in the adaptation/preparedness process, especially in the early stages. For health protection, a crucial focus of adaptation should be ensuring the community develops the ability to deal with variations in weather, such as extreme heat or increased precipitation from climate change, in order to prevent harm from ever happening. In particular, public health professionals play an important role in educating policy-makers and the public about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on health as well as in monitoring and preparing for conditions that may impact public health.

The prevention approach is a key to ensuring that climate change has a limited effect on the public’s health and safety and makes certain that preparedness will remain central in assuring community resiliency in the face of climate change. So, the professionals should be trained, and action plans developed to assure that they follow this approach.

The other role will be to correct the commonly held mis-perception that climate change is solely an environmental problem. For this, health professionals should be able to convey the negative impacts of climate change on human health and well-being and detail the benefits associated with taking action against climate change.

The 10 essential services below are tenets of good public health practice. The public health practitioners’ role can be aligned with these services. PH practitioners should be able to track diseases and trends related to climate change and climate events; conduct investigations of contaminated infected water, and food and vector-borne disease outbreaks; and inform the public and policy-makers about health impacts of climate change. They should also strengthen public health partnerships with industry, other professional groups, and communities to make adaptation plans and to address needs; develop municipal health wave preparedness plans; prepare for and provide health care services following disasters; and organize training of health care providers on health aspects of climate change. Staff should also be trained and programs developed to conduct assessment of preparedness efforts such as heat wave plans; and to conduct research on health effects of climate change, including innovative techniques such as modeling and research on optimal adaptation strategies.

The above guidelines and essential services are global in nature and in following issues, I will explore further how health care students and professionals in Nepal can assume their role in climate change adaptation more specific to the conditions in Nepal. I encourage others to collaborate in developing more information on this topic in the near future.