Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hazards of Climate Change

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) pronounced that climate change is one of today’s most critical global challenges. Its effects have far-reaching and terrifying consequences that could lead to sickness and death. The World Health Organization (WHO) expressed its deep concern, particularly on climate change’s effects on human health. The WHO said climate change has caused the recent increase in many infectious diseases, such as the HIV and AIDS, hantavirus, hepatitis C, SARS, among others.

“The total current estimated burden is small relative to other major risk factors. However, in contrast to many other risk factors, climate change and its associated risks are increasing rather than decreasing over time,” the WHO said. For instance, projections from the health institution showed that by 2030, some regions experiencing climate change will likely see a 10 percent increase in diarrhea incidences.

Getting Sick
“Vectors, pathogens and hosts each survive and reproduce within a range of optimal climatic conditions: temperature and precipitation are the most important, while sea level elevation, wind, and daylight duration are also important,” it said.

Further, climate change also increases changes in various vector-borne infectious diseases, particularly for malaria in regions bordering current endemic zones. The organization even singled out malaria as a disease of great public health concern. The WHO considered this as the disease that is most sensitive to long-term climate change. In its recent study, the WHO found that in the last century, malaria epidemics were periodically experienced in the Punjab region of India brought about by excessive monsoon, rainfall, and high humidity.

In fact, reports said that malaria has already reached Bhutan and new areas in Papua New Guinea for the first time. In the past, mosquitoes that spread the disease were unable to breed in the cooler climates there, but warmer temperatures have helped vector-borne diseases to flourish.

Singapore, on the other hand, has seen a correlation between rising temperatures and the number of dengue fever cases. Degue fever cases increased ten-fold in areas in Singapore with a mean annual temperature of up to 26.9 Celsius in 1978 to 28.4 Celsius 20 years later.

This year, the Philippines’ Department of Health (DOH) projected that there will be around 40,000 dengue cases during the rainy season or from June to October.
The DOH already reported 10,497 dengue cases from January to April or a 36.4 percent increase from last year’s 7,697 cases.

The agency said the regions with the most reported cases are the National Capital Region with 2,750, Central Luzon with 1,736, and Central Visayas with 1,384. Deaths from the disease also increased from 88 to 116 during this period, mostly in Central Visayas.

Other Dangers to Health
Malaria and other vector-borne diseases are not the only risks to health posed by climate change. There are other risks that bring even more unquantifiable health impacts.

These include health impacts caused by changes in air pollution; the altered transmission of other infectious diseases; insufficient food production due to the effect of climate change on plant pests and diseases; drought and famine; population displacement due to natural disasters, crop failure, water shortages; destruction of health infrastructure; conflicts over natural resources; and direct impacts of heat and cold.

Climate change alters weather patterns, resulting in increased precipitation and more severe storms and hurricanes. The death toll of such natural disasters is quite staggering: in Myanmar alone, an estimated 20,000 died from a cyclone that ripped through the country.

The warmer climate also poses a threat to global food security.

Due to these, the WHO warned that the world may see more malnutrition cases in the near future and estimated that by 2030, a significant increase will be seen in Southeast Asia, posing greater health risks for a significant part of the world’s population. A preview of things to come happened early this year when southeast Asia experienced a rice shortage due to downfall in productions.

Reports even stated that Asia-Pacific is already experiencing the effects of global warming. Estimates say that climate change was directly or indirectly linked to some 77,000 deaths each year in the region. The WHO said that this accounted for about half the global total of deaths blamed on climate change.

This figure, however, does not include deaths linked to urban air pollution, which kills more than 400,000 people in China every year.

Further, heat-related deaths in Shanghai, China, jumped three times above the norm in 1998 when a massive summer heat wave drove temperatures to about 40 degrees Celsius.

“Overall, although the estimates of changes in risk are somewhat unstable because of regional variation in rainfall, they refer to a major existing disease burden entailing large numbers of people,” the WHO said.

Because of the frightening consequences of changing weather patterns, the UN has appealed to various governments all over the world to seriously find ways to address climate change.

Whether or not this appeal will be considered remains to be seen. But while the UN waits for a concerted effort from major economies such as the United States to address climate change, global weather conditions continue to deteriorate and cause untold misery to billions of people.

Article by Jennifer Ng for Health Alert Asia Pacific newsletter, Issue 12, 2008

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