Climate change impacts healthcare

Last Updated 31 December 2019, 19:24 IST

On a cursory look, the connection between climate change and healthcare might seem far-fetched. Yet, when you look at it closely, you are bound to realize how climate change is impacting human health and how the continued shift will necessitate a change in healthcare delivery approaches. Climate change is also bringing in its wake a series of devastating changes in the behaviour of our atmosphere. This includes an increase in extreme weather events such as floods, drought and storms, a threat to biodiversity as well as the possible sinking of coastal areas.

Some of the major adverse effects of climate change on health include direct effects like prolonged exposure to high temperatures, increase in the incidence of vector-borne diseases and effects that result from social inequality, such as malnutrition. Similarly, climate change has also been shown to impact mental health —for instance, exposure to extreme weather events increases the risk of anxiety and depression, disproportionately affecting people who already suffer from pre-existing mental disorders.

This is why there is a need to include the impact of climate change while planning our health strategies. While it is not easy to clearly extrapolate the possible health impacts of climate change, WHO estimates that climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. Of these, 38,000 are likely to occur due to heat exposure in elderly people, 48,000 due to diarrhoea, 60,000 due to malaria, and 95,000 due to childhood malnutrition.

Areas with weak health infrastructure particularly in developing countries are likely to be the hardest hit. Unfortunately, climate-based healthcare planning is nowhere in sight when it comes to India.

We need to train health personnel on climate change and related health topics and modify the curricula to include climate change at the secondary and tertiary levels. Contingency plans should be designed to deploy health personnel in events of outbreaks and extreme weather events. Investment plans should be modified to incorporate potential losses caused due to climate change.

We need to identify vulnerable populations and areas that are prone to climate change-related health risks. The results of the assessment should be used for resource allocation.

We need robust early warning tools to tackle changing disease incidence and trigger early action. Warning systems should be implemented for climate-sensitive diseases, including heat stress, undernutrition and zoonotic diseases as well as warning systems for extreme events. Quick emergency response and aggressive relief and rehabilitation systems must also be put in place to deal with outbreaks as well as extreme weather events.

Hospitals should improve the design of health facilities by installing energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. We also need to develop action plans to deal with extreme thermal events including early warning systems, effective public communication and cooling centres for populations at high risk.

Disease surveillance systems for high-risk seasons need to be strengthened, along with water and food quality control. We also need to expand the scope of disease monitoring and establish efficient early warning systems. Vector and pest control programs need to be bolstered, along with the strengthening of diagnostic and treatment options for high risk regions and periods.

Changes in weather patterns are expected to be accompanied by increasing of airborne pollen levels and their duration. People with allergies will face a direct impact of this change. Stricter standards to curb air pollution and a shift towards cleaner fuels are closely linked to addressing this concern.

Climate risk should be factored in while siting, designing and retrofitting health infrastructure. We also need to establish early action systems, including educating people and mobilizing the community. Current health infrastructure must be assessed and retrofitted to sustain extremes in weather conditions and environmental changes.

A comprehensive systemic approach will help us build resilient health systems that can adapt to climate change challenges. It is definitely not an easy task, and we will face inevitable difficulties along the way. Systemic approaches work only if they build upon routine processes and engage all the elements of the health system, both institutional and community-based.

(The writer is the CEO of Omnicuris)

(Published 31 December 2019, 17:55 IST)

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