Making a World of Difference: Climate Change and Public Health

“It is an overwhelmingly popular misconception that climate change isn’t occurring or is a natural phenomenon.  While some change is due to a natural progression, we can see that increases in temperatures are far more rapid than occurred historically.”

Mey Akashah, PhD doesn’t flinch or deny global warming but tries to face it, find answers and generate attention to the crisis.

Her journey began studying marine biology.  However she realized that, even though climate change is making a huge difference in the earth’s oceans, people weren’t really interested.  She recognized that, to make meaningful changes in the effects of climate change on the environment, she would need to change. She shifted gears, going to graduate school in global and environmental health and hasn’t looked back.

Now, as a public health professional and award-winning human rights activist, Mey Akashah tries to generate the attention climate change demands.  Her academic publications include compensation for human rights abuses, the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on conflict and sustainable livelihoods, and the health impacts of mercury contamination in the Arabian Gulf.  Towards this end, Dr. Akashah participated in a twitter chat on September 13, 2012.

The chat began with the ozone layer.  Chloroflourocarbons, known agents of ozone layer depletion, are banned.  Yet new evidence published in August describes previously unknown mechanisms of ozone depletion.  Dr. Akashah featured this research by James Anderson and his colleagues on her blog.  Apparently there is a connection between climate change, clouds and cancer.  “Climate change makes storms stronger and more frequent. Strong storms press water into the ozone layer. Water vapor breaks down ozone.  Less ozone equals more UV rays reaching us.  More UV rays equals more skin cancer.”

The cancers of greatest concern are melanomas in areas under the ozone hole.  Countries seeing higher rates of melanoma are Australia and New Zealand.  Since the research was based on observations of storm phenomena over the United States, it can be assumed that this situation is occurring the world over.

Increases in cancer are not the only health concern the world faces.  “Unfortunately, most health effects have begun to be seen already.  The question is one of intensity and frequency.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that anthropogenic climate change already claims over 150,000 lives annually.”  Some of the diseases linked to climate flux include “cardiovascular mortality and respiratory illness due to heat waves, altered transmission of infectious diseases, and malnutrition due to crop failures.”

With a bow to naysayers, Dr. Akashah states “there is uncertainty in attributing the expansion or resurgence of diseases to climate change.  But, this is largely due to the lack of long-term, high-quality data sets, as well as changes in immunity and drug resistance.”  However, Dr. Akashah points out, “we do know enough to know that it is a problem and that we need to act on it now.”

What is being seen is “injuries due to extreme weather, air pollution-related effects : increased infectious diseases (water-, food-born like cholera, vector-born, for example, malaria, and zoonotic, that is, any disease from animals to human and vice versa like rabies.”

Asthma is increasing.  In fact, in Florida it is due to an unusual source, “increased algal blooms (Red tide).” The progression of the health issues will change over time.  “Some of these changes will have a slow onset. Initially, we will see higher acute asthma attacks, heat stroke, etc.  Over time, these occurrences will become more frequent and more severe. This increase in intensity will coincide with more frequent severe weather events and natural disasters.”

Who are the most likely to be affected? “As per usual in situations of increased stress, it is the most vulnerable who will suffer most severely.  We can make the correct assumption that these will be the poor, disenfranchised, older, and younger members of the population.”  Climate change impacts those who are geographically vulnerable.   This includes people who are in extreme climates like desert nations and those in arctic climates. But it also includes areas of low topography, like island nations and nations with high water tables such as Bangladesh.

Yet another locale that is vulnerable are sprawling urban areas.  These areas “where trees and turf have been transformed into asphalt,” (cities include New York, Los Angeles and Dallas) are seeing what is called a “heat island effect.” What this means is that “these changes cause urban regions to become warmer than their rural surroundings, forming an “island” of higher temperatures.”

Why should health care workers be aware of the health effects of climate change?  According to Dr. Akashah, “We need healthcare workers to be aware of these changes… to help track health trends and to identify and spur health communication towards vulnerable populations.  But we also need their help as disasters and acute crises become more frequent.”

There are actions that can be done to help and Dr. Akashah is taking steps.  “Most of the work I do now involves climate change adaptation – facing the inevitability of climate change in poor communities, especially.”   She is attempting to create low cost solutions to flooding, drought and other consequences of climate change.   “Often the best ideas come from the communities, themselves,” she states. “Our job is often to disseminate the knowledge.  I think giving people a voice is the most important hurdle.”

To illustrate, Dr. Akashah told participants, “An example of the dissemination of community-originated ideas is raising ducks instead of chickens in flood-prone areas.”  Dr. Akashah notes the many studies show the importance of listening and supporting communities, “especially when women are empowered with small funds for sustainable harvests…it improves both maternal and child mortality and increases the proliferation of sustainable farming practices.”

Action is important.  Dr. Akashah suggests paying particular attention to sustainable development.  “Sending donor funds to small sustainable entrepreneurships in these areas” can make a world of difference.

For more information on Mey Akashah, PhD  please see her website: Mey Akashah

For a full transcript of the #hchlitss twitter chat please see: Health Communications, Health Literacy and Social Sciences blog.

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