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The increase in the average temperature and the consequent climate change caused by the accumulation of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere has begun to affect and will affect more in the coming decades, the health of the environment and the world population. In recent years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the health risks posed by climate change are considerable and irreversible and affects the entire planet (Crowley 61). Its impact on health will differ depending on the geographical region and, mainly, on the capacity and knowledge to mitigate or respond to its effects; In short, its impact will depend on the degree of development of the countries. This article describes the foreseeable impacts that climate change can have on the health of the population and various measures and policies are suggested to reduce their impact. It should be noted that in our region these changes are not expected to be drastic; higher annual oscillations are expected; however, due to the availability of more energy in the climate system. It is a change in the trend in the medium and long term, with short-term evidence that corroborates these expectations.
Climate Change and its Impacts on Health
WHO defines the term “health” as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not only as of the absence of disease or diseases” (Watts et al. 1872). Considering this broad definition of health status, climate change impacts will affect human health in various ways. These effects have already begun to cause essential changes in ecosystems, in agricultural production, in aquifers, in marine ecosystems, in biodiversity, in the socioeconomic field, in the migration of people and animals, in the distribution of vectors of diseases, in seasonal patterns, in an increase in the frequency of natural disasters, etc. These effects will increase in the coming years and will directly or indirectly affect the health of the populations.
Changes in Morbidity and Mortality Related to Temperature
Increased emission of greenhouse gases will increase average temperatures (Patz 1568). Although this increase will be more significant in summer than in winter, softer winters are expected and with lower daily thermal oscillation. This situation will favor the appearance of a higher number of forest fires in summer, whose fumes represent a severe risk to health. Also, a higher frequency of heat waves is expected, which will lead to an increase in mortality and the heat shock incidences. The rise in the temperature in summer will produce an increase in energy demand due to the use of air conditioners. This increase in energy demand may, in turn, lead to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions (and therefore pollution), since there is also a need to reduce the hydroelectric potential due to the foreseeable reduction in precipitation. This increase in pollution will have direct effects on health.
Effects Caused by Extreme Weather Conditions
The days of extreme heat will present increases in the maximum temperature of between 2 and 6 degrees and will increase their frequency from 6 days a year (average 1961-1990) to more than 36 days per year in the last third of the century (Gosling 374). Another meteorological situation that may pose a risk to health is extreme precipitation. Studies indicate a reduction in the number of days with excessive rainfall, although of higher intensity, in spring and summer. These extreme situations, if they occur, could pose a higher risk to the population that can suffer injuries due to drowning or trauma, isolation of people, or cause shortages of drinking water and the appearance of epidemics and allergic diseases (asthma, dermatitis, etc.). It is also necessary to consider the increase in the risk of extreme droughts, which can negatively impact on agriculture and livestock and, therefore, on the feeding of the poorest sectors of the population. Likewise, these episodes will affect the supply of drinking water and increase the risk of rain or foodborne disease transmission.
Diseases Related to the Consumption of Food and Water
The different predicted impacts of climate change foresee a reduction in rainfall and, therefore, an increase in the stress of water resources, a pressure that is already present due to population growth, economic change and land use, and, in particular, to urbanization (Springmann 1943). There is also the possibility of extreme droughts that will negatively affect sectors such as water supply, agriculture, livestock, energy production and, once again, health.
The increase in temperatures would also affect the physical, chemical and biological properties of freshwater lakes and rivers, which, together with the reduction of rainfall, will cause a worsening of water quality. Another factor to be taken into account, related to the increase in temperature, is the possible increase in nephrolithiasis (kidney stones) whose incidence is directly related to the average temperature of the latitude where it is inhabited, being most prevalent in temperate latitudes (Singh et al. 115). The average increase in temperature will harm this health problem, which could be further aggravated by the foreseeable deterioration in the quality of drinking water.
The primary digestive infections are those caused directly by microorganisms, such as amoebiasis or salmonellosis, or also by the ingestion of toxins produced by organisms, such as botulism or staphylococcal poisoning. The scarcity of water, its low quality and high temperatures may favor the impact of these infections on the population.
Mitigation and Adaptation Measures
Climate change should not be treated as a single problem, detached from others that also affect the environment in which we live. For this reason, it is necessary to consider global measures that mitigate the impact of human activities on the environment as a whole. Measures to reduce the effects of climate change produce a clear and direct benefit on health. For example, decreasing dependence on fossil fuels would reduce air pollution and, therefore, the incidence of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
One of the mitigation measures that should be carried out is the exhaustive control of air quality and the development of a warning system for the population in situations of risk, due to extreme weather values (temperatures, precipitations, etc.), by the declaration of uncontrolled fires, by the increase of pollution (ozone, nitrous oxides, etc.) or by increases in the concentrations of aeroallergens (pollen, spores, etc.) (Watts, Patz). The monitoring of these factors is carried out at present, but precise and effective policies are still necessary to achieve a system that integrates all the sectors involved, which includes such measures as restrictions on emissions to protect health. Likewise, complementary measures aimed at promoting education for health, promoting citizen awareness for the solution of these problems and the promotion of healthy habits are necessary.
Given that climate change seems ultimately inevitable and irreversible, adaptation measures are necessary, because even if the emission of all greenhouse gases were interrupted in a short space of time, the climate change would continue to occur. Failure to make efforts to adapt to this change will have a price in terms of diseases, health spending and loss of productivity always higher than the cost necessary to carry out mitigation or adaptation efforts. These adaptation efforts include placing health security concerns at the center of climate change mitigation, applying local, national and international adaptation strategies, avoiding new severe and potentially disastrous health effects, as well as promote the adoption of measures to mitigate the causes of climate change derived from human activity.
Nations and communities should study the extent to which current health systems can cope with the impact of climate change, and if necessary, strengthen them, and increase health investments to formulate and better apply the strategies of adaptation in front of these risks (Kjellstrom et al. 102). In particular, it would be advisable to improve the response to public health emergencies associated with climate variability, especially given the health repercussions of natural disasters and the possibility of increasingly frequent, severe and far-reaching epidemics. Likewise, it is necessary to promote applied research on the protection of health in the face of climate change.
In summary, the solutions must come from all sectors, politicians (legislative changes, in particular in matters of air quality control and infectious vectors), technicians’ actions (monitoring, contamination reduction techniques), urban planning, transport, energy supply, food production, land use, water resources, education and information, all of which measures, together with those of emission reduction, could prevent more than 700,000 deaths per year between 2009 and 2020 around the world.
Climate change will seriously endanger health security in our region. The effects of climate change, such as worsening of air quality, extreme weather situations (heat waves, torrential rains or droughts), episodes of severe pollution, for example, ozone, fires, problems of drinking water supply and Food, changes in the distribution of infectious diseases, increased energy demand, etc., will have a negative impact on the health of the population.
It is urgent to carry out a process of evaluation by qualified experts of the capacity of the health services of our society to face extreme situations and their impact on health caused by climate change, to take the most effective management measures to respond to new emergencies and those potentially affected. In this regard, it is advisable to pay special attention to the needs of the most vulnerable populations, children and the elderly, and especially to areas that suffer from a precarious infrastructure, lower income levels and poor education.
The problem of climate change is not limited to the increase in temperatures. We are facing a global shift in the environment that will require solutions in which all sectors of the planetary society are actively involved and willing to give in, at times, to economic interests, and to prioritize sustainability over and above developing.
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