A silent killer: the impact of a changing climate on health

Climate Change Europe

(European Environment Agency, 2017)

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Kim van Daalen, a prospect Public Health master student at Cambridge University, currently living in the Netherlands. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA). However, the opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

The last decades, the political debate about climate change has remarkedly increased, as did, unfortunately, the urgency of this matter. After the announcement of America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the debate has heated up over the last couple weeks. Terms as emission, greenhouse gas effect, deforestation, climate justice and energy efficiency enter the debate on a daily basis. Even more fundamental in this debate are the two terms; ‘’mitigation’’, any human intervention to reduce the human impact on the climate system, and ‘’adaptation’’, adjustment or preparation of natural human systems to a new or changing environment. But what about ‘’health‘’? Is the term ‘’health’’ mentioned at all? Should ‘’health’’ even be mentioned in climate change debates?

The answer is simple; yes, ‘’health’’ should be mentioned. Every year thousands of people are killed by extreme weather events, while the physical and psychological health of millions is undermined. Yet in the current climate debates, health is still being treated as a peripheral despite its overarching relevance to many central issues. This was perfectly reflected during my presence at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where the question I did receive most was ‘’ But how is health related to climate change ? ’’. This while we, as medical students and future health care professionals worldwide, have already seen the effects of this silent killer on our current health system.

Rising sea-levels, extreme heat waves, flooding and droughts, hurricanes, degraded air quality, disease migration, they all affect indirectly or directly the physical and psychological wellbeing of human worldwide. Moreover, infectious disease as malaria, meningitis, dengue fever and diarrhoea are  taking a heavy toll on the human population. And their virulence is highly sensitive to climate conditions, meaning that virulence will increase as climate change results in increasing temperatures and humidity. Climate change will affect the health of every individual and community, but certain population groups, as among others, aboriginal people, socially disadvantages people and seniors are most vulnerable and will have to cope with higher health risks. All in all, the present health consequences of climate change are severe and will increase over the next generations.

However, mitigating and adapting to climate change can protect health in the future while preventing death and illness now by recognizing the opportunities for health co-benefits in mitigation and adaptation strategies. Expected co-benefits are for example; decreasing greenhouse gas emission resulting in cleaner, smog-free air and less respiratory disease, increased active transport reducing cardiovascular disease and obesity, sustainable diets resulting in lower rates of cancer and other disease and early warning systems for disease outbreaks protecting populations’ health against spreading infectious disease. For such adaptation and mitigation strategies to be effective for health it is important to understand the climate change health impact and its implications as well as monitoring adequately the effectiveness of interventions. Thus, although the health impacts might be severe, there are solutions in mitigation and adaptation strategies.

So while the clock is ticking and the debate is proceeding, it is time to recognize health in climate change negotiations and integrate health in mitigation and adaptation policies.

About the author

Kim graduated her bachelor Cum Laude and is now a prospective Public Health student at Cambridge University, United Kingdom. She is the National Public Health Officer of IFMSA-The Netherlands, coordinating the Standing Committee on Public Health in the Netherlands. Kim  is highly interested in research, global health, climate change and politics. She deeply believes in interdisciplinary collaboration and tries to broaden her horizon beyond her own field of expertise, as she followed several interdisciplinary honours programmes. Next to IFMSA she has been part of other non-profit organizations and this year she founded the Peoples Climate March in Amsterdam.

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