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Climate change a threat to health

Health professionals have backed a Climate Commission report that warns of the threat to the young and old of a warmer planet. By Cathy Wever.

Climate change has implications we are only beginning to truly comprehend. While natural resource depletion and environmental degradation are much discussed consequences of global warming, the serious threat to human health caused by climate change has received less of the spotlight.

Until now.

In a recent major report, The Climate Commission paints a grim picture of the impact climate change will have on Australians’ health.

Released in November 2011, The Critical Decade: Climate Change and Health forecasts significant impacts including an increase in the incidence and spread of infectious diseases and an increase in the number of deaths associated with extreme temperatures. Those in our community who are already vulnerable, such as children and the elderly, are particularly at risk.

The report details a steep rise in the number of days expected to reach over 35 degrees each year in Australia’s capital cities, pointing to more frequent heatwaves, as well as more regular “extreme” weather events such as floods.

Report author, Professor Lesley Hughes, says these warmer, wetter conditions will impact regionally across Australia, with some parts of the country predicted to become wetter, while others will become drier. Every part of the nation is expected to become much hotter.

“In more humid environments we certainly expect to see more outbreaks of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever and Ross River virus. We may see these diseases appear in parts of Australia that haven’t traditionally been places where you’d expect them,” she says.

Dengue fever is currently confined to northern Queensland but the report predicts it will make its way south, putting “5 to 8 million Australians at risk by the end of the century”.

Hughes notes that health impacts from climate change are already being felt, with outbreaks of malaria being seen recently in the Torres Strait for the first time in many decades. She says that while “collectively, we should be working on the root cause of the problem – greenhouse gas emissions”, the health sector must also actively prepare to manage the imminent results of climate change on the population, boosting their knowledge and skills if necessary.

“Healthcare practitioners need to be aware that the geography of diseases may be changing. GPs in many parts of the country might be unfamiliar with the symptoms of newly distributed diseases, which may mean they are not picked up straight away.”

Hughes says trying to anticipate and plan for a more stressful environment is especially important for healthcare practitioners working with the elderly. “We may need to look at improving our systems for alerting elderly citizens and their carers that extreme conditions are on their way, and for checking up on them during these events to make sure they are coping.”

Infections due to food contamination in hot weather are also likely to become more common as climate change takes its toll. Professor Phil Weinstein, professor of ecosystem health at the University of South Australia, says that while vulnerable groups such as the elderly and children are not necessarily more susceptible to developing such infections, the consequences for these groups is more dire once they are infected.

“A good example is a food borne disease like campylobacteriosis, a common gastro-intestinal infection which causes diarrhoea. Children and older people are much more vulnerable to dehydration so feel the impact of an infection like this more quickly and keenly.”

Weinstein says increased vigilance across the health and community sectors is going to be vital in terms of dealing with the health impacts of climate change. Because the infections forecast to increase don’t have vaccinations available, he argues that a preventative approach is essential.

“Normal practices like good food hygiene and protecting ourselves from mosquitoes will become more and more crucial for everyone. We have to keep doing what we do, but do it more and better.”

“It’s also important that practitioners are judicious in their handing out of antibiotics so that organisms don’t become resistant. A preventative approach is going to be much more effective.”

Nobel prize winner in medicine and former Australian of the Year, Professor Peter Doherty, cites heat stress as the most likely cause of major health problems for the very young and the very old.

The Climate Commission’s report stresses this issue and warns that heat – already the leading cause of weather-related deaths in Australia – will put substantial pressure on our bodies as it becomes more extreme. For health providers such as hospitals and aged care centres, Doherty advises: “Where I’d put my money is in making sure there is adequate air-conditioning, and that there is a back-up power supply system if the central supply fails.”

In somewhat of a vicious circle, managing the increasing heat may require the additional generation of greenhouse gases through use of more air-conditioning units. Yet Hughes reminds us that “as winters get warmer we’ll be using less power for heating” although she notes soberly that “modeling shows that the forecast increase in heat-related deaths will outweigh any decrease in cold-related deaths.”

Signalling a possible increase in the need for additional mental health services, the report identifies flow-on effects expected as a result of climate change. “Extreme weather events such as fires, floods and droughts can cause social dislocation and mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety,” it states.

The report has the backing of Australia’s health sector and its signatories include the AMA, the Australian Nursing Federation, the National Rural Health Alliance and the Public Health Association of Australia. It reminds health professionals of their “important responsibility in explaining health challenges and ensuring that health services are equipped for those threats.”

Weinstein argues that the health sector should go one step further and be more vocal in pushing for action on climate change.

“Medical and health professionals can help garner public support for measures aimed at reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. If nurses and doctors vocally support the climate change movement then it will help the community take the message on board. These are people whose opinions are respected and who can speak with authority on the health effects climate change will produce.

“This advocacy role is very important. The medical community needs to be out there supporting those politicians that are taking a stand on climate change.”

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