The negative impacts of climate change are numerous and wide ranging. But none are as disturbing as those that pose a serious threat to human health (Smith et al., 2001). Moreover, these negative impacts are extremely complex in nature.
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Climate change can affect human health in several different ways (Haines & Patz, 2004). With a 0.8% rise in the earth surface temperature over the past 30 years ( Solomon et al., 2007) and a further expected increase of 1.1- 6.4 degrees over the next 100 years, climate change would result in volatile global temperatures, fluctuations in the world’s rainfall level, extreme droughts and severe floods all effecting human health adversely (Haines et al., 2005). The effects can be either direct in the form of a life threatening situation or indirect ones, with detrimental consequences for biodiversity – integral to human life existence.
In addition, climate change can potentially influence the quality and quantity of disease carrying species thereby affecting the pathogens that carry those diseases (Bosello et al., 2006). According to WHO the fluctuations in global temperatures and rainfall have resulted in the deaths of around 150,000 people (Campbell-Lendrum et al., 2003). Furthermore, by 2030 the risk to human health from climate change will almost double (WHO, 2002)
Main Threats to Human Health
The rise in temperature predicted in future is most likely to cause more severe and prolonged heat waves (Hulme et al., 2002). Increased temperatures usually lead to cardiovascular, cerebral vascular and respiratory diseases, especially in the elderly with high mortality rates (Haines et al., 2006). Heat waves are particularly dangerous for urban areas due to the urban heat effect often resulting in higher temperatures than less crowded rural areas. In the absence of a co-ordinate effort, the threat of a heat wave is all the more real. In 2003 several thousand people died due to heat wave across Europe (Johnson et al., 2005; IVS, 2003). Severe heat can also lead to increase in humidity with negative implications for human health (Haines et al., 2006).
Floods & Droughts
As the frequency and severity of floods and droughts increase, so do their devastating impacts on human health, in a direct and an indirect way. Human life can be threatened or even lost as a result of flooding or injury caused due to it. There are long term negative impacts on the victim’s mental state associated with flooding (French et al., 1983). Moreover, flooding can cause the release of toxic chemicals thereby constituting a health hazard (Albering et al., 1993-94). Flooding often leaves behind a legacy of diarrhoeal and diseases related to respiration especially in crowded regions. Mental illness like anxiety can creep in after the damages of flooding in a population (Haines et al., 2006).
Droughts can lead to infectious diseases, extreme dry conditions which are highly conducive to forest fires and severe food shortages leading to low nutrition (Bouma et al., 1997).
Malaria & Infectious Diseases
Infectious diseases are mostly caused by agents normally in the form of insects. These insects are sensitive to slight temperature variations. With the increase in temperature due to climate change, there is a likelihood that the population of these carrier agents would increase. Temperature isn’t the only variable affected by climate change that helps such disease carriers. Factors like humidity, sea level rise, soil moisture and alteration in rain forest can positively affect the numbers of these insects. This can lead to an increase in the overall incident rate as well as an increase in the duration of the transmission season (Kovats, 2003).
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Addressing the Issue
Policy making with regard to assessing the impacts of climate change on human health needs to address two basic notions: vulnerability in future as well as the cost in terms of resources needed to implement the strategies in order to reduce or mitigate the effect of climate change on human health (Ebi, 2008). Successful policies should be able to address the following basic issues: select the most climate sensitive health problems, the relationship between climate change and current health patterns, strategies available to help address the issue of climate change in terms of its costs on human health, and how can we successfully implement the health related climate change strategies (Ebi, 2008).
The issue of climate change carries enormous significance with respect to its impacts on human health. Several studies indicate a clear linkage between the climate change and its negative effects on human health. Climate change negatively influence human health in numerous ways with severe repercussions. Changes in the different variables associated with climate change help nurture the conditions harmful to human health. Policy making therefore needs to address some of the most sensitive and pressing issues in this regard. We should be able to target the issues in a more economic way as the costs of climate change mitigation are already perceived to be too high.
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