How Climate Change is Changing the Face of Human Health

The overall effects of the climate crisis have been mentioned numerous times. However, what’s largely overlooked is the connection between climate change and public health. That is to say, the more climate fluctuates, the more danger we’re putting ourselves in. The severity of these risks will vary depending on the country and the access it has to healthcare and precautions. However, the world at large is on the brink of health risks that will come into being as a result of climate change. Here are ways in which that may happen:

As temperatures rise and forests die, more pandemics will come 

Studies have found that continuously rising temperatures will increase the likelihood of pandemics. The first on the list is dengue, which is already a WHO-classified epidemic in over a hundred countries. If temperatures continue to rise as they’re currently doing, the world could see an estimated 7.5 million dengue fever cases by 2050 (1). And if there’s anything that COVID-19 has taught us, its that pandemics don’t respect international boundaries.

Many root causes of climate change are also responsible for the spread of pathogens (a bacterium, virus, or other microorganisms that can cause disease) into new hosts. Deforestation is often isolated from the equation. However, it has been found that since cutting down trees causes habitat loss, animals fleeing for shelter come into contact with those from other wildlife zones, making for new hosts and spreading more diseases. The same animals also wander into human zones in search of shelter and food, increasing the reach of any pathogens they may be carrying. Protecting forests and active reforestation are the key to sustaining wildlife habitats. 

Changing climate lengthens transmission seasons

Studies have found that fluctuation in climate across the world has an impact on the rise and transmission of water-borne diseases and those that are passed on through insects and cold-blooded animals. Changing climates can cause the transmission seasons– the period during which diseases are spread– to increase in length. It’ll also shift up geographical ranges, which means diseases that were once common in certain parts of the world might move around the globe if the climate permits. 

Dengue and malaria are diseases that are highly impacted by climate change. Malaria takes 400,000 people every year, many of whom lived on the African continent. The global incidence of dengue is also on the rise, no doubt because climate change has made it easy for mosquito vectors to thrive all over (2).

Hotter temperatures affect the food you eat

Bacteria grow much more rapidly in warmer environments, which means they will continue to thrive as temperatures go up. This increases the chances of salmonella and bacteria-based food poisoning occurring nearly everywhere in the world. 

Carbon dioxide, the factor behind the ‘greenhouse effect’ that’s heating the Earth’s surface, is also directly responsible for food-related crises. Higher levels of CO2 is said to reduce the potency of protein in staple crops such as wheat and potatoes. This makes them less nutritious and, in turn, weakens human immune systems and strength (3). 

Global warming worsens air quality

Changing weather patterns can worsen the quality of air, increasing the already alarming number of asthma cases and respiratory attacks. Warmer temperatures will cause more days with ground-level ozone, which damages lung tissue and aggravates allergies (4). 

Higher temperatures also mean higher chances of wildfires across the globe. Smoke and cinders from burning forests add to the already polluted air, further reducing air quality. What’s worse, the particles from wildfires will reach far and beyond the epicenter, which means no one is truly removed from such disasters because the effect is widespread. 

When looking at the relationship between health and climate change, there are some arguments and factors we mustn’t ignore, for the larger good. They are:

a.         Climate change and global health aren’t independent 

To think that climate change and environmental health policies have nothing to do with each other is a delusion. Global health is entirely dependent on the following factors: 

  • The part of the world we live in;
  • The species we share our land with; 
  • The weather our part of the world experiences. 

All of these are inadvertently dependent on the state of the climate and the environment. 

To offset the next infectious pandemic, it is crucial that global health is seen in the light and influence of climate change. This way we shift focus from cure to prevention in the health sector by turning the spotlight onto reducing the root causes of climate change and global warming. 

b.         Some groups are more at risk than others

The global economic disparity will largely influence the way pandemics spread and are treated. There are susceptible groups across the world who are heavily at risk of climate-sensitive diseases by virtue of where they are placed in society:

  • The young and the elderly;
  • The socially marginalized (be it through poverty or backward political systems);
  • Pregnant women.

Healthcare systems and environmentalists alike must factor in these variables while tackling their respective crises. 

c.          One is not more important than the other

The overwhelming trend in the face of COVID-19 is that climate action has taken a backseat. This is partly because the danger of COVID-19 feels more immediate and personal. 

What we fail to notice as a global population is that the effects of climate change are being seen every single day. Its cause might be widespread, more difficult to pinpoint, unlike COVID-19. However, just as people are taking care to wash their hands and work from home, if we were to approach individual climate action with the same gusto, the future would look much brighter. 

The final word

The actions we take to combat climate change are important, be it planting trees or holding big players accountable. These will, in effect, be the same actions that reduce pandemics, improve quality of life and contain the ‘burden of disease’ as we know it.