How Climate Change Exacerbates Healthcare Crisis

Global leaders around the world often underestimate and miscalculate the challenges posed by climate crisis to humanity and human progress. There has been a lack of mutually accepted consensus regarding the problem, halting the global measures and derailing, thwarting any systematic globalized attempt at implementing major climate reforms.

The feathers of deep misunderstanding pinned on the global hat of climate action, has made the hat ugly and uneasy to put on to. The solutions and policies required are no where in sight and as a result of incessant jabbing to the climate change consensus by some erratic leaders, its unlikely to be seen implemented any soon.

This has been evident from the results of recent attempts at charting a comprehensive plan for mitigation of climate change at UN. Past 4 years of climate debate has failed to invoke a sense of urgency in global leadership and policy framing. What might spur the leadership towards prudent climate action, if it was better elucidated, are the gargantuan and titanic dangers climate change already poses to human health. Abrupt changes in climate functioning has created new challenges and brought new dangers to human health; evidently posing greater threats to progress and development. 

Climate change exacerbates chronic and contagious disease, worsens food and water shortages, increases the risk of pandemics, aggravates mass displacement, drastically worsens air pollution, dramatically effects agriculture and eventually halts the human development. The broad environmental effects of climate change have long been discussed as long-term risks and challenges meant to be encountered in future, but what’s clear now is that the health effects caused by climate crisis are worse than anticipated and that they’re already being felt, in the present. 

The challenges to human health starts from gaseous emissions. Black carbon, methane, and nitrogen oxides are powerful drivers of global warming, and, along with other air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and ozone, they are responsible for over seven million deaths each year, about one in eight worldwide. The problem exacerbates in cities with exceedingly poor air quality, majority of them in South Asia and South-East Asia, affecting lives of millions. Ninety percent of the world’s urbanites breathe air containing hazardous pollution levels, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This air pollution extends its effects differently to people of different age group. The worst affected are minors and newborns with pollution turning cataclysmic for them at the beginning of life. Toxic pollutants cross the placenta, increasing the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, which in turn can eventually cause lifelong damage to multiple organ systems. A newborn exposed to a week of hot and humid environment is much less likely to survive compared to one faced with a less hostile condition.

Children are more frequent breathers than adults making them recipient of more air pollutants into the body with relative younger parts, making them more vulnerable. Air pollution compromises children’s cognitive development and can worsens the risk of behavioral disorder. As a result, air pollution causes an estimated 600,000 deaths each year in children under five, mostly from pneumonia. 

Increased number of respiratory and circulatory diseases, accelerates cognitive decline in seniors, pneumonia, asthma, heart attack, stroke, emphysema and lung cancer are all caused, affected or are catalyzed somehow by pollution and excesses is green house gas emissions. Emissions also worsens the global warming; which in turn lead to increased humidity and cause more frequent and intense heat waves that worsen hypertension and mental health problems, and can limit the effectiveness of certain medications. Heat stress can make working conditions unfavorable and increase the risk of cardiovascular, respiratory and renal diseases and heat related illnesses. With 1.5°C warming, 350 million more people could be exposed to deadly heat stress by 2050. 

When a person’s body temperature rises to 40 degrees Celsius or above, systematic organ failure occurs. Heat waves this summer killed 1,435 people in France alone, the only country to have published statistics on heat-related deaths. 

Climate change also compounds the threat of communicable diseases. Increased rainfall and higher temperatures favour vector-borne diseases — those caused by parasites, viruses, and bacteria transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and fleas. Cold-blooded insects generally prefer warmer temperatures, which not only extend their breeding seasons but also accelerates their geographical expansion.

New diseases like Zika and Ebola emerging as a result of climate change have started causing trouble in several regions. The mosquito is already the deadliest animal in the world, causing more than half a million deaths each year—438,000 of them from malaria. Warmer temperatures make it easier to transmit malaria at higher altitudes, and may cause it to spread farther into highlands. Malaria – which is transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes – is strongly influenced by climate and so as the Aedus mosquito, the vector of dengue and chikungunya.

Climate change can also worsen other vector borne parasite diseases such as leishmaniasis, lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis, and tick-borne diseases and the effect is due to the impact of climate on the relevant vector populations. Climatic factors might also influence human plague, a bacterial disease carried by rodents and transmitted by fleas. 

Another virus likely to spread as a result of climate change is dengue, which currently infects 96 million people each year and kills 90,000 of them. Cholera is also becoming more difficult to control: warm, brackish waters and rising sea levels help spread the disease, which infects about four million people each year and kills about 100,000 of them. Bubonic plague, spread by rats and fleas, is predicted to increase with warmer springs and wetter summers. Anthrax, whose spores are released by thawing permafrost, could spread farther as a result of stronger winds.

Erratic rainfalls also brings challenges of increase in disease like diarrhea, as lack of safe water can compromise hygiene and increases the risk of diarrhoeal diseases (which kills approximately 2.2 million people every year), trachoma (an eye infection that can lead to blindness) and other illnesses.

What should be done?

We are already facing a global health crisis with 10 million children dying each year; over 200 million children under 5 years of age not being able to fulfilling their developmental potential; 800 million people going to bed each night hungry; and 1500 million people having no access to clean drinking water. And climate change is set to exacerbate it; strengthening diseases; worsening prospect of inter generational justice and increasing health inequity between rich and poor. 

A new advocacy, public movement and awareness drive is needed to bring the global order together for adaptation to changes, for policy framing on primary mitigation: reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and the need to increase carbon bio-sequestration through reforestation and an enhanced approach in agriculture. The recognition by governments and electorates of the problem is essential in advocacy and movement needed to tackle both mitigation and adaptation.

Management of the situation will require collaboration in all sectors and introspection to find new ways of global cooperation that have hitherto eluded us. Better globalised and mutually cooperative actions must be taken for mitigation of climate change across the world.

A new healthcare system adaptive to changing climate’s increasing threats, universally affordable and accessible, capable of responding in urgency and emergency and including screening and accurate timely diagnostics; must be created. Incremental comprehensive actions targeting one disease at once coupled with implementation of prudent and stable universal health coverage is the best way to move forward. Actions should prevent further linking of climate change to diseases.

Prudent policies must be adopted to decrease carbon emission and further global warming. A renewed approach towards healthcare is our only armour. Almost all diseases caused or aggravated by climate disruption can be controlled and cured at the early stages, policy based response can kill any possibility of pandemic diseases and will save around a billion souls worldwide.


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About the Author

Yogendra Thakur
A student and two time state topper in Astrophysics and Art of Lecturing. Primary focus areas are Indology and Economics.