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Climate Change and our World’s Health

August 3, 2016

 

Climate change is apparent in nearly all aspects of our daily lives. For the past 200 years, but especially the last 50, we have seen an incredible increase in quantities of carbon dioxide and other gases that destroy our atmosphere leading to massive climate alterations. As tangible evidence from the last 130 years, the average global temperature increased by 0.85 ° C. This is especially worrying when 0.18 ° C of this can be attributed to the past 25 years. We are clearly going in the wrong direction. If this is not enough to persuade, July 2016 just broke the record for the hottest month ever recorded. Further, August 2016 is projected to surpass this record in most areas of the globe.

Climate change affects many things, from rising sea levels, to dramatic weather events, that can lead to mass migration. However, one thing that is often overlooked is that climate change is affecting our health. Extreme heat and strange precipitation patterns all affect also the characteristics of diseases. All of these issues are interrelated. 

First, extreme heat is a major contributor that affects disease worldwide. Extreme heat occurs in times of little precipitation, which often results in a drought. Many argue that the heat is better than cold, because it eradicates cold-related diseases; however, this is not the case. While diseases like influenza will decline, more dehydration related diseases will grow. For example, during the drought of 2003 in Europe, there were an additional 70,000 registered deaths which can be directly attributed to the heatwave. In particular, Paris recorded 20,000 additional deaths. The majority of these deaths were among small children and elderly members of the community. Some of these deaths can be attributed to heart and lung disease that are affected by extreme heat. The extreme heat also "melts" ozone and heats other pollutants in the air, also aggravating conditions like heart disease. Finally, there are 300 million people worldwide who suffer from asthma. High temperatures also lead to an increase in pollen levels that trigger asthma, which also negatively affects the health. 

Moving on, rising sea levels due to the irregular precipitation patterns have destroyed homes, hospitals, and many other buildings that are important to a properly functioning society. Moreover, more than half of the world population lives within 60 km of the sea. It can be expected that in the next 100 years, these people will be forced to relocate, which will increase the risk of not only contagious diseases, but also mental health issues. Soon, the environmental refugee will not be a novel term. The variable rainfall provisions also affect our freshwater supply. Without safe drinking water, diarrhea is a major threat. Diarrhea kills 760,000 children under five every year due to dehydration. With this said, the most devastating effect of rainfall is on agriculture. With increased precipitation, we can expect an increase to the 3.1 million deaths that are already caused by malnutrition each year.

However, one cannot overlook the impact that climate change has on existing models of disease, particularly diseases transmitted by insects, such as malaria, dengue and most recently Zika. Climate change lengthens seasons, thus increasing the amount of time for these diseases to spread. For example, climate change is causing an increase in diseases transmitted by snails in southern China, which is now able to spread north and affect millions of people.  Malaria is strongly influenced by climate, because it is transmitted by a specific type of mosquito that lives only in very hot climates. Malaria kills 600,000 people a year, mostly young children in Africa.

In conclusion, climate change can really lead to the spread of disease. And, although climate change may bring specific immediate benefits, overall health effects of this phenomenon are horrible. Climate change affects our air, our water, our food, and our shelter. Everyone is at risk, but those living in developing countries, polar regions, large cities, and close to the sea are the most vulnerable. We need to take decisive and cooperative action towards ending, or at least slowing, climate change. Finally, by fighting against climate change, you will save not only the lives of the future, but millions of lives today.

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