The growing heat and wilder weather associated with climate change is making it “the largest global health threat in the 21st century,” and hundreds of millions of people have already suffered in the past two decades, health workers warn on Wednesday.
In a report published by The Lancet Medical, scientists and health experts stated that the effects of climate change — from heat waves to worsening storms, floods and fires — are raging and threatening to overwhelm health systems.
“This is what really keeps me up at night,” said Nick Watts, executive director of The Lancet Countdown, an annual report that tracks the links between public health and climate change.
For example, storms and floods not only lead to direct injuries, but can also close hospitals, trigger outbreaks of disease, and cause prolonged mental health problems as people lose their homes, he said.
Forest fires also hurt and uproot people, but also sharply worsen air pollution in wide areas.
California's recent drought-induced wildfires cost more than 80 lives, but also polluted the air in the east, like Massachusetts, said Gina McCarthy, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, now at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.
Christie Ebey, a professor of global health at the University of Washington, said that the effects of climate change associated with climate change are often immediately overwhelming. “We see them appearing in communities at the same time,” she said.
A Lancet report, prepared by doctors, scientists and policy experts from 27 organizations around the world, called for quick action to contain climate change and prepare global health systems for growing problems.
“The rapidly changing climate has serious consequences for every aspect of human life, exposing vulnerable groups to extreme weather conditions, changing the patterns of infectious diseases and jeopardizing food security, safe drinking water and clean air,” he warned.
Work on later
According to the report, last year another 157 million people worldwide were exposed to heat last year than in 2000.
Higher weather led to a loss of 153 billion hours of labor in 2017, a 60 percent jump since 2000, as workers in the construction, agriculture and other industries brought down tools, often compressing family income.
In India, heat has caused a reduction in the number of working hours of almost 7 percent in 2017, Watts said.
The report notes that richer countries also see the effects of heat.
For example, Europe and the eastern Mediterranean appear more vulnerable than Africa and Southeast Asia.
This is largely due to the fact that many older people, especially those at risk, live in cities that catch heat and may be hotter than the surrounding areas, the report says.
For example, in England and Wales, more than 700 deaths were recorded in June and July of this year than usual during a 15-day hot spell, Watts said.
Renee Salas, emergency room physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital in the United States and author of the report, said she recently turned to a 30-year-old man who was felled by a heatstroke while trying to work in two jobs.
“Keep in mind that for every statistic there is a personal story,” she insisted. Such medical cases are “often hidden human costs of climate change,” she added.
Hunger and disease
In warmer conditions associated with climate change, the potential range of diseases transmitted from mosquitoes, such as dengue fever, and other health threats, is expanding, the report said.
Since 1950, a 24 per cent increase in coastal areas suitable for cholera outbreaks has been observed in the Baltics, while in the highland regions of sub-Saharan Africa, areas where malaria mosquitoes could survive increased by 27 percent.
According to Salas, high temperature conditions can also give some pathogenic microbes greater resistance to antibiotics.
And higher temperatures seem to determine the maximum yield from agricultural land in all regions of the world, reversing the trend towards increasingly large yields, the report says. Ebi of the University of Washington said that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduces nutrients in crops, increasing the risk of malnutrition even for those who get enough food.
According to her, threats to mental health, meanwhile – children worried about their future in the overheating world of families affected by natural disasters – are growing.
Acting quickly to curb climate change — whether switching to clean energy or increasing the number of people walking and using bicycles — will reduce healthcare costs by the same amount of money needed to reduce emissions, said Ebi.
“Most mitigation strategies are good for health, and now they are good for health,” she said.
This story was published with the permission of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a Thomson Reuters charity that covers humanitarian news, climate change, sustainability, women's rights, trade, and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.
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