By Guest Author 01/02/2018

Chelsey Kivland, Dartmouth College and Anne Sosin, Dartmouth College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Around the world, the health care debate often revolves around access.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, recently announced: “All roads lead to universal health coverage.” Discussions for how to translate this vision into a road map for action is central to the agenda of the WHO’s executive board meeting this week in Geneva.

Yet focusing on access is not enough. The imperative for access must be paired with a frank acknowledgment that climate change is making communities around the world more vulnerable to ill health. A 2017 commission of The Lancet, a leading health research journal, tracked the effects of climate change on health and found evidence of harms “far worse that previously understood.”

Even as we move to close the access gap, a string of natural disasters in late 2017, including successive hurricanes and widespread forest fires, threaten to widen the vulnerability gap.

As a global health professional (Sosin) and a cultural anthropologist (Kivland), we have witnessed how the global exchange of health technology, expertise and aid has contributed to dramatic gains in the delivery of health care in Haiti and other settings, especially around infectious diseases. Yet climate change threatens to undermine the health gains in vulnerable communities across the globe.

As firsthand witnesses to sharp health disparities globally, we argue that world leaders need to insist that any health care strategy must address the social and environmental vulnerabilities driving poor health in the first place.

The health burden of climate change

Climate scientists argue that global warming is exacerbating extreme weather events. And natural disasters are often the source of health crises, particularly in fragile settings. Consider the case of Puerto Rico. The official death toll of the storm was estimated at 64; however, later reports have estimated that the disruption of health care services contributed to upwards of 1,052 deaths on the island.

Lagging recovery efforts have exposed how natural disasters deepen the relationship between socio-economic inequality and health disparity. In Puerto Rico, where poverty rates are double those of the poorest continental state, people already struggling with illnesses such as diabetes and kidney disease have seen their conditions worsen as the long-crumbling health care system is overwhelmed with patients and neglected by the mainland government.

The health impacts of the storms may persist even beyond the restoration of health services.

Hurricane Harvey exposed the toxic afterlife of disastrous storms. Storm damage to 40 industrial sites released chemical toxins linked to cellular damage, cancer and other long-term health problems. As The Lancet’s Commission on Pollution and Health found, air, water and soil pollution is now the leading environmental cause of death and disability, accounting for more than 9 million deaths annually. These numbers will only grow in the face of climate-induced disasters.

Restoring health care systems is vital for these communities, but it will merely treat the symptoms and not the causes of post-disaster illness. We believe that policymakers must address the link between environmental and health crises.

Haiti as case study

We have learned this lesson from our work in Haiti. Once a death sentence in rural Haiti, today HIV is largely controlled thanks to widespread access to antiretroviral therapy. The prevalence of the disease in pregnant women fell from 6 percent to just over 2 percent in the 10-year period from 1993 to 2003. Likewise, vaccines against cholera, introduced in 2015,have proven to be up to 90 percent effective against the disease.

However, even as vaccine coverage continues to grow, the population remains at risk for cholera and other emergent threats. Only 58 percent of the population has access to safe water and only 28 percent has access to basic sanitation. These conditions worsen in the wake of natural disasters. Hurricane Mathew in 2016 triggered spikes in cholera and other waterborne diseases, especially diarrhea, the second leading cause of death among children.

Haiti. Photo by Anthony Ingram on Unsplash.

Hitting the one region of Haiti that had not yet been denuded of trees and vegetation, Hurricane Matthew seemed to complete the destruction of the country’s food systems.

Since the late 1980s, the erosion of waterways, loss of habitats and destruction of agricultural land have fueled the importation of cheap, processed foods. Rice and pasta have replaced a diet once rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The high-sugar, low-nutrition foods contribute to the dual health burdens of obesity and under-nutrition.

These trends are ongoing, but they are exacerbated by the disastrous shocks of extreme weather events, which are made more likely by climate change. As Hurricane Matthew came ashore, it decimated fishing villages and tore through farming communities, killing livestock, uprooting crops and denuding backyard fruit trees. The United Nations estimated that 800,000 people suffered food shortages.

Closing the vulnerability gap

Haiti is often cast as behind the global curve. But as a reflection of the dangerous intersection of climate change, poverty and ill health, it is in fact predictive of what is to come in the rest of the world. Haiti teaches us that our own health is not bound up simply in the present decisions we make about health care systems but rather more broadly situated in the changing natural environment.

Closing the access gap has been a long battle and the gains cannot be underestimated. Yet the challenge ahead is even more daunting. Whereas increasing access has centered on extending health care technologies to underserved populations, closing the vulnerability gap will require approaches that extend beyond the health sector and national borders.

In the past year, the health care debate in the U.S. has centered on attempts to limit or expand access to care. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has left the Paris climate accord and unraveled environmental protections for national and transnational corporations – with little resistance from health advocates. We believe that leaders must recognize that environmental policy is health policy. Rollbacks of environmental regulations will cause far greater consequences on health, in the U.S. and globally, than any health care bill.

The ConversationFixing health care systems while we undermine the environmental conditions for health are a textbook example of what Haitians describe as “lave men, swiyè atè”—washing your hands but drying them in the dirt.

Chelsey Kivland, Professor of Anthropology, Dartmouth College and Anne Sosin, Global Health Initiative Program Manager, Dartmouth College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image: People collect water piped in from a mountain creek in Utuado, Puerto Rico on Oct. 14, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were still without running water.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

0 Responses to “Why climate change is worsening public health problems”

  • This has to be one of the silliest articles out – even makes the anti-vaxers look sane.
    The world is at an end because of one hurricane after a veritable drought when compared to the historical record. Get real. Even the IPCC says they can’t see an increase in extreme events, whatever they are. Poor vaccination records and pollution blamed on climate change! It is reading stuff like this that turns those sitting on the fence into sceptics. It might be fodder for the true believers but to many, it just looks like a waste of taxpayers money at universities

    • Perhaps you should re-read the article Chris. – this time, with your blinkers off.

      Regardless of your view on climate change (and we are generally aware of yours), the points made are logical:

      1 – Natural disasters cause displacement and make the delivery of services including health more difficult. We only need to look to Christchurch and Kaikoura to confirm this. In those cases, mental health was the stand-out problem, in other countries it may be different
      2- Natural disasters result in damage that can cause environmental damage and pollution. Again, ref: Chch where water is now threatened by pollution, there are problems with asbestos dumping following the demolition and clean-up etc.

      There is plenty of differing opinion on the rate and extent of climate change. But there is now very little debate that it is real, and at least in part man-made. It is pretty much guaranteed that at the margins – economic, geographic or social – the additional pressure of a change in climate will lead to problems including health of humans.

      Which is all the article is saying.

  • I did actually read it Ashton just like I did read the Technical summary and about 5 of the chapters from AR5. There is a big disconnect between the two.
    To quote from above “These trends are ongoing, but they are exacerbated by the disastrous shocks of extreme weather events, which are made more likely by climate change. ” Or how about “Yet climate change threatens to undermine the health gains in vulnerable communities across the globe.” That is directly opposite to AR5 – How about you read the IPCC reports and get back to us on your findings?

    • Hi Chris. I direct you to the Summary for Policy Makers document of AR5 – specifically SPM 1.3 (regarding the likely impact of climate change on natural and human systems) and 2.3 (regarding the future impact and its likely disproportionate increase in risk for disadvantaged communities.

      I’d say there is a very close alignment between these policy level statements and the statements in the article. It certainly takes a fairly distorted lens to reach the conclusion that the opinions of the authors are diametrically opposed to those of the IPCC.

  • Ashton
    If you want to read SPM (which was a political document and the wording was voted on, not actually written by scientists) that is your business, but don’t try to argue it is factual.
    Here is the actual hurricane data from some one whose job it is to study them. Where are the increasing extremes?

    Here are actual sentences out of the body of AR5 WG1 about extremes
    “There is low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall), owing to lack of direct “observations, dependencies of inferred trends on the index choice and geographical inconsistencies in the trends. ”
    There is high confidence for droughts during the last millennium of greater magnitude and longer duration than those observed since the beginning of the 20th century in many regions.”
    :Confidence remains low for long-term (centennial) changes in tropical cyclone activity, after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities. ”
    ” There is low confidence of large-scale trends in storminess over the last century and there is still insufficient evidence to determine whether robust trends exist in small-scale severe weather events such as hail or thunderstorms.”
    “With high confidence, floods larger than recorded since the 20th century occurred during the past five centuries in northern and central Europe, the western Mediterranean region and eastern Asia. ”
    “There is low confidence in basin-scale projections of changes in intensity and frequency of tropical cyclones (TCs) in all basins to the mid-21st century. This low confidence reflects the small number of studies exploring near-term TC activity, the differences across published projections of TC activity, and the large role for natural variability and non-greenhouse forcing of TC activity up to the mid-21st century. There is low confidence in near-term projections for increased TC intensity in the North Atlantic, which is in part due to projected reductions in North Atlantic aerosols loading.”
    That is the actual words from the IPCC scientists – or are they looking through distorted lenses too?

    There have been and continue to be major natural disasters, but unfortunately, they have been exacerbated by lack of investment in infrastructure. There is also corruption in allowing development in places like floodplains and coastal regions that will get hammered when storms do occur. It is a lot more productive working there, than as a handwringing virtue signaler.

  • HI Chris – thanks for the feedback. I fully admit my knowledge of the science is puddle-deep. I’ll wade into the technical swamp and see what I can glean…

    Totally agree with the infrastructure concerns you raise. Unfortunately economic history and human nature mean coastal regions and floodplains will likely remain centres of development until/unless they become economically unviable. A different matter.