Climate Change: A Healthcare Emergency

Ice melting.jpeg

Greenland (Unsplash, 2019)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Sonica Minhas, a second-year medical student in London interested in maternal and foetal health, nutrition, climate change and healthcare policymaking. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. 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.


One might question what is the link between climate change and health? The answer is everything. The two are inextricably linked, with climate change threatening the very foundations of health: food security, freshwater supplies and clean air.

Touted by the WHO as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019, climate change is expected to cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year- primarily from malnutrition, diarrhoea and heat stress. The figure is hardly surprising because the evidence is already here for us to see.

Summer 2018 saw Europe struck by heatwaves; an event coinciding with 650 more deaths than average in the UK, with the elderly and heart condition patients amongst the most vulnerable. We are yet to discern to what extent climate change is culpable for these additional deaths, nevertheless we do know that hot temperatures will damage health via heatstroke and indirectly by worsening air pollution, exacerbating existing heart and respiratory conditions. Thus, it becomes apparent that climate change could directly and indirectly contribute to mortality and morbidity both; the impacts of which are not restricted to human lives. Our healthcare systems are not primed for such changes so there will be consequences for them, for our resources and for our economies.

On the mention of air pollution, it was declared last year that nine in ten people breathe polluted air- a killer of 7 million people per year. Air pollution is intertwined with climate change because fossil fuel combustion is a leading contributor to both. Visible smog or not, air pollution is inescapable: particulate matter, nitric oxides, sulphur dioxide and other microscopic pollutants are able to tear through our body’s defences, infiltrating our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and even reaching our brains.

In the short term as mentioned, there will be exacerbations of existing conditions like asthma but there’s a long-term cost too: increasing risks of stroke, heart attacks, respiratory diseases and accelerated ageing. On top of which, there is still so much more to learn about the effects of climate change on our health. In particular, the impacts on babies, in terms of premature birth, birth defects and low birth weight and then, as they grow older on cognitive development. The fact is this is global health emergency. If we truly want to save lives, we cannot focus our efforts on these conditions and diseases in isolation, we must address the root cause: climate change and air pollution.

Another example of climate change’s effects: dengue fever has been on the rise. Aedes mosquitoes are the transmitters of the dengue viruses. Both temperature and humidity are crucial for their survival and reproduction. Rising of global temperatures even by 2°C will empower and is empowering the mosquito to become more infections (by increasing its vectorial capacity), allowing outbreaks to occur in new geographic areas, especially when urbanisation and international travel are factored in. Said outbreaks could prove lethal since we do not have effective treatments nor an effective vaccine for protection against the disease. Important to note, this doesn’t just apply for dengue fever, the spread of other infectious disease like malaria and zika is also being facilitated.

Zero hunger- one of the sustainable development goals set by the UN in 2015 to be attained by 2030 and a vision to strive for to cut malnutrition related deaths across the globe. Climate change might just become a thorn in the path, especially when you consider that approximately 60% of the people facing food insecurities live in regions affected by conflict and climate change related impacts (namely severe drought and flooding). Take regions in southern Africa- such as Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia- they have been victims of drought in recent years, destroying entire cycles of staple crops.

Not only do food supplies fall short but whatever food remains, spikes up in price. Ultimately, these people are left with no other choice by to eat less both in terms of quantity and variety, putting them at serious risk of malnutrition and what’s more tragic, the children are hardest hit, the risk of death from diarrhoea and malaria increasing with severe acute malnutrition. How will we end hunger with the population expected to increase and these changing weather patterns disrupting food supplies?

You could argue that these countries should be adopting sustainable agriculture practices, but how? They simply do not have the funds or resources to invest in say flood and drought-resistant crops. That’s why it becomes even more critical to focus the climate change dialogue around health; it will draw another line of health inequity in our world because the most vulnerable and hardest hit will be the poorest and least able to adapt regions.

The bottom line is that climate change is already a healthcare emergency; the impacts are occurring in front our eyes as we speak. It’s all fair and well to talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting carbon footprints, protecting our wildlife but we cannot afford to forget that our health is also on the line.

As humans, we care about our health, about the health of our loved ones so it is imperative that healthcare professionals be mobilised to educate the public on these implications so that the immediate impacts can be dealt with, but perhaps we also need them to take the charge for policy making at all levels of governance for preventative measure against the burden climate change will be on human health. Linking health and climate change is entirely plausible and it might just be this is the push the public and governments need to spur the fight against it.

About the author

Sonica Minhas is a second-year medical student in London interested in maternal and foetal health, nutrition, climate change and healthcare policymaking. Her interests in global public health stem from doing a project on the extortionately high caesarean section rates in countries like China and Brazil. It was then that she realised that as well as practicing medicine, she wants to provide a voice to the vulnerable members of our population by advocating for changes to education and healthcare policies. She is currently expanding her horizons and exploring her interests by being on the committee of her medical school’s nutrition society, opting to focus on women’s health, maternal and foetal health in her assignments for medical school and finally, by writing her first ever article for this issue of the European Sting. She believes that as doctors we have a responsibility to share our opinions on matters that concern health and that we must be leaders for the changes needed in our healthcare systems to challenge threats to public health and address the issues that establish healthcare inequities.

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Comments

  1. Well written Ms Sonica Minhas, it has long being a human attritubute to always seek medical help when their health appreciably derails. In a complex society that is quick to produce waste rather than proffer solutions to handle them, I think the effects of climate change on global health is occurring at a cheetah-pace compared to the sudden global concern about it. We need to also respond as health advocates and concerned global citizens with the speed of light.

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