Climate change is typically written and talked about as an environmental problem, but this practice is unintentionally misleading because it also can have huge impacts on human health. The warming of some habitats could increase mosquito populations, and unfortunately for us humans, that increase could mean many more cases of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, zika virus and West Nile Virus. Up to one billion people could be exposed to disease-carrying mosquitoes for the first time because of climate change impacts.
An estimate on the World Health Organization website provides a picture of how devastating climate change might be in the coming years, stating “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250, 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.” The World Health Organization is not an environmental advocacy group, it is a United Nations international public health agency, so it can’t be dismissed by anti-environmentalists.
To supply a public health perspective on climate change, Dr. Boris D. Lushniak, MD, MPH, retired Rear Admiral, and dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, answered some questions for CleanTechnica.
The CDC has published some information about how climate change can impact human health. For example, extreme rainfall can cause excessive flooding and climate change can make droughts more severe. Extreme heat also can cause premature death and health problems like increasing heart attack risk. As a physician and professor, what climate change health effects do you focus on and how do you communicate about them?
As a career public health practitioner I believe in an all hazards approach to public health issues and communicate about both current and future hazards associated with climate change through my lectures and leadership. As a dermatologist and occupational medicine specialist I have a keen interest in health effects on the skin such as infections and those associated with ultraviolet radiation as well as health effects in workplace environments. Since I serve as Dean and Professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD (UMD SPH), I also advocate and support the work being done here.
Experts in our school have been involved with conducting vulnerability assessments to gain a better understanding of the communities who are most at risk and to help inform prevention responses. Dr. Amir Sapkota and other experts in our school’s Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health co-authored the Maryland Climate and Health Profile Report.
In our state, we know that certain communities will be disproportionately impacted by climate change effects — those in coastal areas and those who are already at higher risk for health conditions that will be exacerbated by climate change. The state report concludes that: “People with pre-existing medical conditions, children, low socioeconomic status, as well as those residing near coastal areas will be disproportionately impacted because they have pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk, or because they lack adequate resources to help them adapt to the changing conditions.”
Research using national data is also linking trends in extreme heat events, extreme precipitation events, and early onset of spring with various health impacts.
Notable recent research from the school on climate impacts on health includes:
Changes in Onset of Spring Linked to More Allergies Across the US
Extreme Weather Events Linked to More Severe Asthma Cases
We have a strong commitment as a School of Public Health to promoting health equity and it is clear that globally the people and communities whose health will suffer most and first from climate change are those who are already vulnerable, so we see climate change as very much an equity and justice issue.
When you are communicating about climate change with patients, colleagues, students, or members of the public, how do raise the subject and in your experience do people typically seem to think of climate change as being only an environmental issue or problem?
Although people often think of climate change as an environmental issue, as a public health “guy” I find it most effective to communicate it as a public health issue. The subject is raised quite easily because environmental and occupational health are key components of public health. Historically external exposures from the environment and the workplace have affected human health. Now we add to that public health conversation the ramifications of climate change and those direct health effects that are occurring and can occur.
The CDC has also published information about how milder winters can mean that fewer ticks die off during this season so there are more out in spring and summer, which potentially translates into more people being bitten and contracting Lyme disease. The same might be true for mosquitoes that transmit West Nile Virus. How can members of the public learn more about how climate change might make conditions more favorable for insects that transmit diseases that harm humans?
Usually I would say that a good source of information about climate change and its health effects would be found on official government websites such as CDC and EPA. Now, because of the political climate, not so much! But, the CDC site remains a great site for general information on insect-borne diseases. The public should reach out for information from reliable, data-driven, and scientifically-based sources which includes those from non-governmental organizations.
As a physician, do you collaborate with environmental scientists, researchers, or advocates to raise awareness about the connection between climate change and human health?
At UMD SPH, we are very much an interdisciplinary team (public health practitioners, scientists, researchers, teaching faculty, and staff) that works together to teach, study, and advocate for public health. We team up with others across the University of Maryland and with external partners including the medical world, behavioral science experts, policy, law, and advocacy leaders to work together on this mission. It’s gonna take a village!
If you were going to communicate with parents about exposure to situations that could harm their children like wildfires or extreme weather events would you make the connection to climate change?
Yes, the connection of cause and effect needs to be made, so that everyone understands the connectivity and the far-reaching ramifications of climate change.
How did you personally become aware of climate change and at that time did it seem more of an environmental issue or did you see some of the human health implications right away?
I saw it as a critical public health issue from the start. Early on in my career as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the CDC, I worked on health effects from flooding in Bangladesh. There I saw the ramifications of climate disasters first hand and it left me with a direct experience of seeing how climate plays a role in the health of a people.
Among your healthcare colleagues, would you say awareness of the climate change to human health connection is high or needs more work?
This arena always needs more work. It needs to be more emphasized in medical, dental, nursing, pharmacy, public health, and other professional schools as part of the curriculum and as part of professional training programs. We are making some headway. As a physician I see medical groups getting more engaged. For example, recently the American Academy of Dermatology has established an Expert Resource Group on Climate Change and Environmental Affairs which is becoming quite active.
Do you do anything personally to reduce your carbon footprint?
I’m an avid outdoors person and love being mobile without the use of fossil fuels – running, hiking, biking, climbing, sailing. I also drive a hybrid vehicle.
Are there times you notice that talking about climate change is awkward or difficult because for some people the issue is seen in ideological or political terms, or is put more in the realm of disbelief or denial?
Unfortunately, the discussion of climate change has become part of the big political divide in this nation. The scientific facts however speak for themselves. Let’s be honest about the science, both the proven facts and the known limitations, but also let’s be frank about the potential catastrophe before us.
Image Credit: UMD/Lisa Helfert