By Khin Maung Myint
In the articles related to the climate change written a few years back, I had discussed mainly, the factors that led to the deteriorations of the climatic conditions and their effects on the ecosystem and the Earth. After the recent collision of the climate change and the COVID-19, which sounded the warning siren of the dangers, risks and challenges due to this unholy association, I will be turning my attentions to the impacts of the climate change on human health and diseases.
In the case of the collision mentioned above, the climate change exacerbated the spread of the disease and increased its lethality. Here, I will be focusing on how the climate change is causing health problems on human beings. In the collision, the climate change played the role of the enabler, accelerator and multi-pathway crisis engine or just a supporting role. However, what will be discussed here will portray the climate change as the main instigator or the culprit behind the long term illnesses and seasonal health problems that humans are exposed to.
As widely acknowledged, the climate change, which is the result of the global warming, is causing extreme weather conditions. The most common are — extreme hot and cold weathers, droughts, extensive rain and snow falls, serious flooding, stronger and more devastating storms. Associated with these adverse weather conditions are a variety of diseases that usually follow in their wakes.
The climate change, together with other natural and human-made health stressors, influences human healths and diseases. Some existing health threats will intensify and new health threats will emerge. Not everyone is equally at risk though. Important considerations should be placed on age, economic resources, and location.
Being in the tropics, our country is at much risks. From prolonged droughts to dangerous sun exposures, the weather affects human health in numerous ways. The climate change has already raised environmental health threats up a notch. Disease-carrying bugs have expanded their range, hotter heat waves last longer, and storms have gotten more extreme, giving way to many serious illness. The most common diseases that can be caused by extreme heat and drought are listed below.
As global temperatures warm, hot days are expected to become more common and severe. Heat stroke and exhaustion are some of the most directly heat-related illnesses. The heat stress can also cause or exacerbate cardiovascular and kidney problems. Extreme heat events can be dangerous to health — even fatal. These events result in increased hospital admissions for heat related illness, as well as cardiovascular and respiratory disorders. Heat stroke and exhaustion are some of the most directly heat-related illnesses, but heat stress can also cause or exacerbate other related health problems.
Without reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric concentrations, climate change is expected to make air quality worse. More and larger wildfires linked to climate change are significantly reducing air quality and affect peoples’ health in a number of ways. Exposure to smoke increases acute respiratory illness, respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations, and hospital visits for lung illnesses. Today, the frequency of wildfires is expected to get high as droughts become more prevalent.
According to some studies climate change will affect human health by increasing ground-level ozone and/or particulate matter air pollution in some locations. Ground-level ozone, a key component of smog is associated with many health problems, including diminished lung function, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for asthma, and increases in premature deaths. Warmer days lead to an increased amount of ground-level ozone, wildfires are burning bigger and more frequently, unleashing dangerous particles and gases into the air; and allergy seasons are lengthening and intensifying.
Diseases transmitted by insects and arachnids
As our planet warms up and frost-free seasons lengthen, disease-carrying creatures like mosquitoes and ticks are expected to expand their range and activity. Already, a certain type of mosquito, which thrives in warm climates and can be a vector for a variety of virus, of which dengue is one, has been expanding its range. This expansion of range can accelerate the spread of the disease far and wide.
Tick-borne diseases are also accelerated by climate change. In particular, warmer winters are likely to increase the number of ticks that survive and lengthen their active season. It should also be noted that because ticks have long life cycles and are less mobile than flying insects, tick-borne diseases are likely to expand to other areas more slowly than mosquito-borne diseases. So, animal lovers should be more careful.
Access to safe food and water
The climate change is expected to affect, negatively in many cases, especially the crop yields and food security, as floods, droughts, and storms can wipe out farms and fields. Warmer summer temperatures may make growing some crops, for example corn, more difficult. The elevated levels of carbon dioxide will reduce the nutritional value of some crops like wheat and rice. Heat has also been known to reduce milk productions. Animals, both domesticated and wild, are dying from lack of foods and water. These situations supplement to the shortage of nutritious food for human consumptions. Unavailability of sufficient safe food and water can be very concerning to human health and survival. Starvations and thirsts can lead to malnutritions and result in premature deaths.
Safety and well-being during extreme weather
From hurricanes to wildfires, the extreme weathers also pose health hazards — primary impacts include death, injury, or illness; worsening underlying medical conditions and adverse effects on mental health. Extreme weather can also exert pressures on healthcare infrastructures, making it more difficult for people to receive the care they need.
After the extreme weather has passed, mental health challenges can linger. The most common mental health impacts after disasters are post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and general anxiety. Extreme weather isn’t the only climate challenge condition expected to cause mental health. Conventional air pollutants also have been linked to anxiety and depression, and heat can cause mood changes and can fuel aggressive behaviour. Additionally, the very threat of climate change and uncertainty about the future can cause or contribute to anxiety and depression.
There are also other hazards that can appear after a storm has passed. For example, a damp or flooded building can develop mold. Mold affects indoor air quality. Living with poor air quality and in damp conditions has been shown to increase health problems. These health problems include aggravation of asthma and other symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and pneumonia due to mold exposure.
People living in drought conditions may be more likely to encounter certain dangerous situations. These can range from dust storms to flash floods. Wildfires associated with drought conditions greatly reduce air quality. This poor air quality affects people’s health in a number of ways. Wildfire smoke exposure increases respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations and medical visits for lung illnesses. It also increases the need for treatments for asthma, bronchitis, and other breathing problems.
Although global warming may bring some localized benefits, such as fewer winter deaths in temperate climates and increased food production in certain areas, the overall health effects of a changing climate are overwhelmingly negative. The climate change affects many of the social and environmental determinants of health — clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient safe food and secure shelter.
It is quite apparent that climate change is exacerbating the adverse health effects, but with every degree of warming that’s avoided, lives can be saved. While the hospitals and medical professionals and volunteers are stretched to their limits coping with the numbers of COVIT-19 cases, increase of patients from other diseases due to the climate change will be a double jeopardy.
Taking effective actions on the climate, both to reduce warming and to prepare communities to manage and treat associated health risks, is something that we should focus on. The controlling of the climate is not only the responsibility of the government, but also the public participations are of utmost necessity. No one is sure when this COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end. As we are destined to live with this pandemic for some time to come, let us try and keep the climate under control, as much as we can, and create a bright future in line with the new normal way of life.
1.How Climate Change threatens Public Health by Samantha Harrington
— Yale Climate Connections.
2. Climate Change and Public Health — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.