Vital Signs: Health in the Era of Climate Change
Climate change is rapidly becoming a crucial issue for doctors to act on.
Rising average global temperatures are a major driver of extreme weather events, which are now more severe and generally more common than in the recent past.
Doctors are on the frontline of climate-related health crises, and are seeing the impacts in emergency rooms and clinics, while our health infrastructure has been stretched to capacity.
The sharp increase in hospital admissions that flooded Melbourne’s hospitals with thunderstorm asthma earlier this year is a stark example. Ambulance Victoria had six times its normal workload on the night of the storm, 8500 people went to hospital over the course of the day and the next, and asthma medications ran low.
Heat, for instance, is a silent killer, preying primarily on the elderly and people who have pre-existing chronic illnesses. We know that heat waves correspond to an increase in hospital admissions, and an increase in death rates. With increasing global temperatures, these extremes of temperature will worsen.
Increasing temperatures are also likely to bring infectious diseases to greater parts of Australia. As temperatures rise, there is an associated change in rainfall and humidity. In effect, this expands the breeding ground for mosquitoes, which are the vectors of many infectious diseases.
Parts of Australia are already affected by dengue fever. At the moment, these areas are confined to northern Queensland. However, with climate change, mosquitoes’ habitat is likely to grow, exposing a much larger portion of the population to infection.
An economic threat
Climate change also poses a threat to the economy, reducing many people’s confidence in their capacity to feed their families. Agriculture, one of Australia’s biggest contributors to the economy, is vulnerable to the impacts of excessive heat. This is through direct crop loss and, indirectly, the loss of productive work days.
While we are all vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the risks are greater for the elderly, children, people in lower socio-economic groups, people who live in remote regions and Indigenous communities.
As doctors, medical students and/or future leaders, we have a duty of care to our patients. As active members of the community, we have a duty of care to our fellow citizens. It’s therefore important that we face the reality of climate change, and what our profession and our generation can do to be prepared.
Even more importantly, doctors and healthcare workers have an essential role in preventing the problem. Our emergency management services need to be prepared for increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as floods and bushfires. We need to be aware of those vulnerable during heatwaves, and must be proactive in their care.
The medical profession can act by educating junior doctors about what climate change will mean for their practice. We can make our clinics and hospitals more sustainable. We can talk to our patients about the health benefits they can see in their own lives by living more sustainably and how this will help their children. As advocates for action on climate, doctors can protect many lives. Preventing the deleterious effects of climate change may be the single most important public health initiative this century.
Asiel Adan is junior doctor at Western Health and a member of medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia, which is having its iDEA17 conference on 1 and 2 April at the University of Melbourne.
Asiel is also an organiser of iDEA17, which brings together doctors and medical students to address the human health impacts of climate change. Speakers include a long list of leading local and overseas experts. https://www.dea.org.au/idea2017/
Follow the conference highlights on twitter @DocsEnvAus and by using the hashtag #iDEAConf
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Doctus Project.