Diseases on the rise

Flooding, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, strong typhoons and water crisis. As if these are not enough, the world has to brace itself as temperature rises to double what has been projected by climate models.

According to an international team of researchers from 17 countries, sea levels could also rise by 6 meters or more even if the world does meet the 2-degree target of the Paris accord, an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change dealing with greenhouse-gas emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance.

These findings, published in Nature Geoscience, were based on observations of evidence from three warm periods in the past 3.5 million years in which global temperatures were 0.5-2 degrees above the pre-industrial temperatures of the 19th century. As global temperature continues to rise due to climate change so are diseases. “Climate change endangers human health,” declared the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO).

“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).

Climate change results from the Earth’s atmosphere allowing light to penetrate and reach the planet but preventing heat generated after light hits the ground from radiating back into space. This condition is attributed to the 30-percent rise in carbon dioxide since preindustrial times from the use of fossil fuels burnt by motor vehicles, power stations and other human activities.

Health scientists pointed out that should Earth’s thermostat continue to rise, human health problems will also become more frequent and severe. “The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events will be abrupt and acutely felt,” said Dr. Margaret Chan.

“Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter and freedom from disease.”

Dr. Paul Epstein, in a study entitled Human Health and Climate Change, echoes the same concern: “Climate change will have wide-ranging and mostly damaging impacts on human health.  There have been periods of uncontrollable waves of disease that radically altered human civilization in the past, such as when Europe’s population was devastated by bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. That problem was associated with population growth and urbanization.”

According to Epstein, a warming climate, compounded by widespread ecological changes, may be stimulating wide-scale changes in disease patterns.  His study suggests that climate change could have an impact on health in three major ways.

First, by creating conditions conducive to outbreaks of infectious diseases; second, by increasing the potential for transmissions of vector-borne diseases and the exposure of millions of people to new diseases and health risks; and last, by hindering the future control of disease.

The WHO fact sheet on climate change and disease pointed out this fact: “Climatic conditions strongly affect water-borne diseases and diseases transmitted through insects, snails or other cold-blooded animals.”

Take the case of dengue fever, the most common mosquito-borne viral disease of human beings. In recent years, it has become a major international public health concern. “The incidence of dengue has grown dramatically around the world in recent decades,” the United Nations health agency reported. “Over 2.5 billion people—over 40 percent of the world’s population—are now at risk from dengue.”

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 million to 100 million dengue infections worldwide every year.

Mosquitoes that carry malaria were found at never-before-seen elevations on Mount Kenya in 2006. Malaria has also been detected in new higher-elevation areas in Indonesia.  In his study, Epstein concludes that the proportion of the globe that could sustain malaria transmission would increase from 45 percent to 60 percent with the doubling of carbon dioxide emissions.

Mosquitoes can also transmit several viruses that cause inflammatory brain diseases in humans.  In the United States one of the most common of these infections is St. Louis encephalitis. “Epidemic outbreaks are strongly associated with periods of a few days when temperatures exceed 300C. Particularly wet late winter months followed by summer drought, may exacerbate the threat,” wrote Martin Jalleh, a research officer with the Third World Network.

Diseases that used to be controlled are now back.  In 2011 158 000 people from around the world—mostly children under the age of 5—died of measles.  That’s 18 deaths every hour or 430 deaths every day. “More than 95 percent of measles deaths occur in low-income countries with weak health infrastructures,” the United Nations health agency deplored.

In the Philippines measles is back in the news these days because of the astounding number of new cases.  In fact, the Department of Health declared measles outbreaks in five cities in Metro Manila.  An outbreak, explained Health Secretary Enrique Ona, means “there have been cases of a disease—either suspected or confirmed—in a community or a locality where in the past there was none.”

Here are more examples of what’s already happening due to climate change:

  • During the past two decades, the prevalence of asthma in the United States has quadrupled, in part because of climate-related factors. For Caribbean islanders, respiratory irritants come in dust clouds that emanate from Africa’s expanding deserts and are then swept across the Atlantic by trade winds, which have accelerated due to warmer ocean temperatures.
  • Starting in August 2003, heat waves caused more than 14,800 deaths in France. Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom all reported excess mortality during the same period, with total deaths in the range of 35,000. In France deaths were massively reported for people aged 75 and over (60 percent).
  • Six young men and boys were killed by fatal parasites in 2007 at Lake Havasu, Arizona, after they swam in water infested with a heat-loving amoeba. In 2008 scientists found that poison ivy vines have grown 10 times denser near Savannah, Georgia over the last 20 years. “Increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes poison ivy to grow larger and produce stronger irritants,” so goes the report.
  • Smog-related deaths from climate change are projected to increase by about 4.5 percent from the 1990s to the 2050s, according to studies at Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities. A scientist at Yale University, Michelle Bell, looked at the 50 largest cities in eastern United States and found that the health-alert days would go up by 68 percent over the next decades.

Weather-related problems like floods, drought, too much water and water scarcity are most likely to bring health problems.  As a result of climate change, floods have been increasing in frequency and intensity.  “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,” the WHO fact sheet said.

“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 diarrhoeal 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.

Climate change also means disaster. Over the period of 1995 to 2004, a total of 2,500 million people were affected by disasters, with losses of 890,000 dead and costs of $570 billion. Most disasters (75 percent) are related to weather extremes that climate change is expected to exacerbate.

“A massive increase in the frequency of occurrence of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis, forest fires have been observed in last decades and have a direct impact on human health,” WHO said in a statement.

Approximately 600, 000 deaths occurred worldwide as a result of weather-related natural disasters in the 1990s; some 95 percent of these were in poor countries. According to the Oxfam report (November 2007), the average number of natural disasters per year during the early-1980s was about 120. Now, the number has increased to nearly 500.

Is there an end to all these miseries and sufferings? “Without urgent action through changes in human lifestyle, the effects of this phenomenon on the global climate system could be abrupt or even irreversible, sparing no country and causing more frequent and more intense heat waves, rain storms, tropical cyclones and surges in sea level,” warned Dr. Shigeru Omi, the Asian regional WHO director.

For his part, 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 pleaded: “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.”

Turning Points 2018
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