Climate change and health

Column-Dr Malaya Santos phooA Different Drum

Malaya Pimentel-Santos, MD

“Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. The direct damage costs to health are estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion/year by 2030. Areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond. Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through better transport, food and energy-use choices can result in improved health, particularly through reduced air pollution.”

– World Health Organization

THE World Health Organization has identified climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. We are all affected by climate change; some even more than others. As I write this on what also happens to be Bonifacio Day, world leaders are convening in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, with the aim of adopting an international treaty to help curb global warming.

Closer to home

A 2013 World Bank report (Getting a Grip on Climate Change in the Philippines) identifies the country as being third among the countries most vulnerable to extreme weather events, earthquakes, and rising sea levels. Included among the recommendations are to enhance leadership and accountability, and build awareness and capacity towards climate change reforms in the country.

Last November 11, I attended a forum at the Philippine Senate on climate, energy, and health. This very informative event was convened by Senator Loren Legarda, Health Care Without Harm-Asia and the British Embassy Manila. The question that begs an answer is: What can we do, as individuals and as health professionals, to help protect our planet for ourselves and for future generations?

Raise awareness

For starters, we need to gain a better understanding of the science behind climate change, its causes and how it – directly and indirectly – affects the health of individuals and populations. More importantly, we need to use our knowledge and authority to convince others that we need to act, because climate change is happening now.

Furthermore, we need to promote the many health benefits we can gain from reducing carbon emissions, decreasing air pollution, and promoting active living and a healthy amount of physical activity.

Research on environmental health

Health policy and practice must be based on sound scientific evidence. By engaging in clinical, epidemiological, and community-based research, we can help generate much-needed data that, in turn, is a powerful tool for climate advocacy. For instance, global warming and air pollution are both consequences of the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Determining the impact of air pollution on respiratory illness helps provide an added motivation to shift to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.

Similarly, geographical and geospatial analysis is an emerging, innovative field of research with exciting applications in the study of vector-borne disease (e.g. dengue and malaria), environmental hazard and exposure surveillance, disease mapping, as well as other areas of environmental health and documenting our experience with typhoons like Ondoy and Yolanda will help ensure that we are better prepared for future disasters and severe weather events.

Lower your carbon footprint

Carbon footprint is defined by Merriam-Webster as the “amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”. Reducing office, household, and transport-related energy consumption; minimizing greenhouse gas generation by shifting to renewable energy sources (e.g. solar panels); and reducing waste are a few ways to minimize one’s personal carbon footprint.

Interestingly, the Miss Earth pageant – to be held later this month in Vienna – also promotes environmental awareness and the climate change campaign, through the 5R’s: Re-think, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Respect. The reigning Miss Earth is our very own “kababayan”, Jamie Herrel.

Climate change is a unifying theme with the potential to bring together all 7 billion (or so) inhabitants of our planet. In the midst of this unity, we need to recognize the presence of vulnerable populations: Children, the elderly, the poor, and those otherwise marginalized by ethnicity, geography, and socioeconomic status. Let us join the health sector’s climate advocacy, and do our part to help raise awareness and reduce the over-all impact of climate change, for all populations.

Vital Signs Issue 82 Vol. 4, December 1-31 2015