Climate Change and Human Health – Peril and Promise

12 Mar

“Climate change will affect human health in many ways—mostly adversely.” – McMichael et al., The Lancet 2006

Asia is going to experience significant public health changes due to climate change, nearly all of them bad. The science behind the dire human health predictions for the region, which grows stronger nearly daily, shows a confluence of negative health effects underway. Just as in the area of food security, many health impacts are overlapping and correlated and have a multiplier effect. As climate change causes population displacement, food and water sources are stressed, thereby increasing vulnerability to diseases whose vectors have steadily expanded.

Projected Spread of Malarial Disease due to Climate Change

Presently, it is scarcely possible to list Asia’s health vulnerabilities concisely.   Researchers have begun to focus on the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, viral encephalitis, yellow fever, leishmaniasis all of which have been spreading both geographically and in previously unseen seasons. Australia’s Nautilus Institute has documented a clear correlation between rising temperature and cases of dengue fever in Indonesia, as well as temperature-moderated increases in allergic rhinitis, respiratory disease, malnutrition, cardiovascular mortality and mosquito-borne disease.  Researchers suspect that the temperature increases climate change heralds in South and Southeast Asia will increase the prevalence of diarrheal diseases.  Vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and those already suffering from malnutrition will be put at increased risk for negative health outcomes due to climate change.

As disease vectors grow geographically and expand their reach, governments will be forced to address the health care needs of climate migrants.  Those displaced by climate change will find themselves less able to reach already strained health resources.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has increased funding and focus on preparing health ministries across the region to address these challenges. “The health sector, at international, national and sub-national levels, has the responsibility, political leverage and staff with many of the necessary skills to protect the public from climate-related threats to health,”  according to the World Health Organization, Southeast Asia Regional Office.

PISA’s series on climate change explores critical linkages between the impact of climate change and policy concerns. In the health sector, the nexus between migration, public health and climate change may offer great opportunity to resolve persistent challenges by pooling expertise and resources.  A UN Humanitarian Affairs publication raised the possibility that climate change will mesh with ongoing public health efforts to strengthen responses to both. Climate change may be “another reason for what we do,” in the words of a WHO official. To date, climate adaptation and public health efforts have largely been separate; a convergence of these two fields would be mutually beneficial. Similarly, a Lancet study found that introducing greener cookstoves in India – similar to a current PISA microgrant in Vietnam – not only improved public health but also had a net positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

The overall health picture in Asia is one of wider disease proliferation exacerbated by food, water and migratory stress. Are there benefits to be found in increased awareness and greater mobilization and adaptation? We welcome any accounts of health challenges that have been met by new responses or solutions.


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