The diseases of the future

How climate change will affect health issues too.
Photo: CDC Global/CC BY 2.0/ Flickr

“The warming of the planet will be gradual but the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as intense storms, heat waves, droughts and floods could be abrupt – the consequences for health will be dramatic’ – World Health Organisation.  

In just eleven days, last month, hurricane Irma generated enough Accumulated Cyclone Energy by itself to meet an average full Atlantic hurricane season, and this does not take into consideration hurricane Jose and Katia that were occurring simultaneously in the Atlantic and Caribbean region. This is climate change in real time.

It’s not just a matter of sea level rise, storm surges and more intense cyclone activity sweeping through the globe but when the after-effects of mother nature’s wrath unfold, it inherently affects our health.

Wouldn’t you rather the thing that can cause harm to your health was preventative to an extent? Climate change will affect some of the most fundamental factors pertaining to the main pillars that dominate our health: air, food and water. Over six million people die each year because of climate-related issues such as climate-sensitive diseases, pollution, low food production and water stress.

The Pillars of Health


Air pollution from the combustion of coals and hydrocarbons was the twentieth century’s most widespread energy related health issue. Fossil fuel use contributes not only to local and regional air pollution but to a  higher incidence of respiratory ailments in developing nations like China, India and the Middle East where photochemical smog has become a semi-permanent presence in every one of these major countries.  Air pollution has caused over 4.2 million early deaths across the globe in 2015, out of which India and China alone accounted for 25.7 percent and 26.1 percent respectively.

The reasons for these alarming increases in air pollution-related deaths are tied to an increase in vehicle usage in the transport industry in India and a high reliance on coal for energy in China. India, like China, also depends on coal for power generation.

The extent and number of people affected by this recent air pollution in India and China are unmatched. Studies conducted by the Department of Environmental Health in China have shown that short-term exposure to air pollution is associated with increased mortality and morbidity due to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases; exacerbation of chronic respiratory conditions and decreased lung function. Well, there goes stepping out of your home for a breath of fresh air. Instead, you might be walking into your next medical bill and a possible ailment.

Food insecurity on the rise


The second pillar, food, is one of society’s key sensitivities to climate. The change in climate weakens the agricultural capacity as well as the food requirements of at least two billion people. In addition to the rainfall and extreme temperature patterns of El Niño, it has increased an international food security crisis as it is now threatening the livelihood and food security of almost 60 million people worldwide. South Africa’s unprecedented El Niño-related and weather-related stress have triggered the second year of food insecurity for the vulnerable with serious consequences that will persist, according to the World Food Programme.

Undernourishment and malnutrition affect growth in children and newborns leading to growth-related delays.  As with elders, it can also worsen the effects of existing diseases. So many people are already suffering from malnutrition and, food security is only going to worsen with the effects of climate change which threatens decades of developmental progress in human civilization.

“When I return from the garden every day, I put banana leaves in the bottom of my basket so that it appears to have more food in there. I do this for my children, so they don’t see how little food there is and start to worry.” – A worried South-African mother.

When nature collides with nature


El Niño is the natural warming of the ocean sea surface temperatures which affects circulation patterns around the globe. This also influences weather patterns almost everywhere and climate change will make these events more severe. According to the United Nations, El Niño in 2015/2016 was one of the three most extreme warming of the sea surface temperatures since 1950. Impact models show that these changes would propagate into reduced water availability and crop yields which would ensure food price shocks, poor harvests and food scarcity leading to severe health risks.

With El Niño affecting water supplies, in instances where dams provide water resources for hydroelectricity, irrigation and drinking water, the change in weather patterns causing drought and low dam levels affects the very core of economic and social development.

Ethiopia, for example, is one of the countries most affected by El Niño and is facing its worst drought in five decades. To think that a renewable source of energy could be affected this much by a change in climate. If nature can’t survive nature, then what is going to happen to us?

On the flip side of the continents that face heavy droughts and water shortages are other areas that undergo heavy flooding because of much more rain than usual. In Pakistan, the 2010 floods caused almost two-thirds of crop losses and associated damaged amounting to about USD 4.5 billion. The spread of waterborne infections such as cholera, are also more prevalent with climate change due to runoff from heavy rainfall and floodwater that contaminates the water supply.

Warmer temperatures also make it easier for climate-sensitive diseases to flourish thrive and migrate in reaction to changes in weather patterns. It enhances reproduction and transmission of viruses such as Zika that is evident in the South American countries namely Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana and Surinam and Malaria in East Africa who have seen an increase in local transmission due to warmer temperatures.

The effects of climate change are stretching around the globe and the health of millions is being affected in more ways than one. These are the diseases of the future and there is a need to invest in measures to make health more resilient to severe weather events.

This new century that we live in, cannot be a replica of the old habits that we have used to shape our present quality of life. We have arrived at a crossroad and the impact of the changing biological environment on the health of people leaves us at an epochal shift that must be taken seriously. We can choose to live symbiotically and mutually benefit or parasitically and watch the earth become inhospitable to life on the whole.

Vasu Beepath

Vasu Beepath is a Climate Change Advocate and a member of the Caribbean Youth Environment Network - Trinidad and Tobago Chapter. Her interests are planetary health, climatic anomalies and reading historical fact&fiction.
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