A Healthy Approach to Climate Change

20 January 2010 (Last Updated January 20th, 2010 18:30)

Everyone knows climate change is a bad thing but why and how is it negative to human health? Ian McInnes reports.

A Healthy Approach to Climate Change

It is official, or as near as it will ever be, climate change negatively affects human health. In a statement in December 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that scientific evidence of the effects of climate change showed that greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide (CO2) threaten public health and the welfare of the American people.

The EPA went on to say that the causing pollutants should be regulated under the auspices of the US Clean Air Act. It appears that it is time to face up to what is to come in terms of human health.

With negotiations at the UN's climate change conference in Copenhagen proving a disappointment, it looks likely that lack of action will lead to negative consequences to human health.

The Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) coalition, which works in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO), says that ongoing health human issues in world populations will result from increased famine, heat waves, disruption of the ocean food supply, flooding, disease encroachment, drought, population displacement, war and chronic illness from air pollution. There are, therefore, many challenges to be faced.

"The least economically developed nations may be the most at threat."

In a report prepared with HCWH, the WHO said that the least economically developed nations may be the most at threat.

"A warmer and more variable climate threatens to lead to higher levels of some air pollutants, increase transmission of diseases through unclean water and contaminated food, to compromise agricultural production in some of the least developed countries, and increase the hazards of extreme weather," the WHO said.

The organisation went on to say that these scenarios will mean additional risk of infectious diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, malaria and dengue fever, while severe weather events will heavily affect the vulnerable in society. Young children, elderly people, the sick and infirm people, as well as those just geographically unlucky to be living in some coastal and island locations, will face the brunt of climate change.

For richer, for poorer

More affluent regions of the world will be affected too. The US's EPA has already noted that 73 billion kWh of electricity are used at an annual cost of $600m and rising as cases of asthma, respiratory illness and emergency room visits increase. Across the Atlantic, the European Commission (EC) has calculated that air pollution is thought to be responsible for around 369,000 premature deaths every year.

Furthermore, the future world that we inhabit could be filled with all sorts of unexpected health problems, from rodent and insect infestations to the increased transmission to humans of animal-borne illnesses such as a variety of forms of influenza.

"Air pollution is thought to be responsible for around 369,000 premature deaths every year."

Ironically, it is the global health services, in particular hospitals that will not only be expected to step up to the plate to treat the victims of climate change but are themselves somewhat responsible for the problem in the first place. The UK's National Health Service (NHS) has calculated its carbon footprint at over 18 million tons of CO2 per year – approximately 25% of the UK's public sector total emissions.

Hospitals are going to have to find a way to work more and yet use less in terms of virtually everything if that carbon footprint is to decrease.

Energy is the biggest issue here but health spending rethinks may have to go all the way down the supply and labour chains.

To prepare for unknown and unprecedented human health threats, while at the same time changing the entire working structure of hospitals, is a task that wealthy nations will find challenging. Less wealthy countries are, however, the most vulnerable and will find that their chances to adopt and adapt to the new order are slim-to-none, without substantial assistance.

Changing times

Pharmaceutical companies will have to change with the times too – something that large corporations are not that keen on doing given their short-term profit driver. Downsides for the industry could include the release of patents to poorer countries to treat diseases, cheaper drugs and having to rethink and present a greener supply chain to offer to hospitals and health organisations.

"If climate change negotiations work out, global money may be made available for poorer countries to include human health issues."

The pharmaceutical market is going to have to evolve fast as threats such as the H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak evolve and the need to produce a vaccine hit randomly becomes greater.

Historically, revenues for the pharmaceutical industry have largely come from mature western markets. But there will now be opportunities in emerging markets for the companies that are willing to take the risk and are nimble enough to adapt to new business strategies and challenges.

New drugs will be required in these regions along with vastly increased numbers of older and cheaper drugs. If climate change negotiations work out, global money may be made available for poorer countries to include human health issues.

The pharmaceutical industry may have to consider changes to its infrastructures, its attitude to science sharing and be willing to go into partnerships. For companies that take a leap of faith it could mean emerging markets may equal or even exceed mature ones.