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Climate Matters: How does climate change affect our health?

For some of us, climate change is a problem in the future. But the health impacts of climate change are already evident. Climate change is a problem right now.

Worldwide, weather-related disasters have increased by 46% since 2007.

Australia itself has experienced more severe droughts, bushfires, heatwaves and floods over recent years.

The New England region is no stranger to drought, and our communities know firsthand its social, mental health and economic pressure. Drought will increase with continued climate change, and thus protecting our precious water resources is of vital importance.

In South Africa, Cape Town’s lack of water has hit the news. Their drinking water is now being handed out in rations. Extended droughts and resulting famine lead to increasing social and political conflict, impacting on Australia and the rest of the world and contributing to the increasing refugee movements from developing countries.

Closer to home we have been experiencing more frequent and intense heatwaves record-breaking temperatures and consecutive hottest years on record. Extreme heat events lead to higher rates of heatstroke, dehydration, heart and kidney failure and death.  Spikes in ambulance call outs and hospital admissions were recorded and stretched our health services. Melbourne’s 2009 heatwave was associated with a 62% increase in death and 46% increase in ambulance emergencies. Our rural health services are less well equipped than our city counterparts.

Most vulnerable in our community are the elderly, the young and those with chronic disease but we also see healthy individuals affected because of outdoor activities or work. Official warnings to the population were issued by government and health organisations through the media ahead of expected heatwaves in recent months.

The patterns of mosquito-borne diseased have also been seen to change. There is an increased prevalence of Dengue Fever in Northern Australia with larger outbreaks in recent years, and Ross River Virus is spreading further south including to the New England area. It might only be a question of time until Malaria becomes endemic to Australia.

Hotter temperatures lead to higher incidence of food borne disease which we have seen with increasing rates of notifications with rising with temperatures. The most common agents responsible for gastrointestinal infections are E. coli, Norovirus, Campylobacter and Salmonella. Contributing factors that these agents multiply at higher rate as temperatures rise are more power outages and failing refrigeration and air-conditioning systems.

Climate change also drives an increase in respiratory diseases due to an increase in certain types of air pollutants, such as ozone and particulates, as well as air-borne allergens like pollen and mould spores.

Ozone is a toxic component of ground level smog in cities and a respiratory irritant. It increases on hot sunny days and aggravates conditions like asthma.

Harmful particulate matter originates from combustion of fossil fuels, bushfires, even hundreds or thousands of kilometres away, and wood smoke from heating, as also shown for Armidale by a recent UNE study.  These emissions are associated with heart disease, lung cancer, bronchitis and strokes and contribute to approximately 3000 deaths per year nationwide, more than twice the number of road death in 2015.

Warmer temperatures can increase the production, potency and release of allergens such as pollens and spores aggravating allergic diseases including asthma. Changing wind and rainfall patterns caused by climate change trigger phaenomena like thunderstorm asthma that claimed 8 lives in Melbourne last year. Severe thunderstorms are predicted to increase by 30% in Sydney.

Mental health is often overlooked as part of climate change’s health impacts. The New England region is very familiar with drought related depression and higher rates of suicide. All extreme weather events including bushfires, floods, hailstorms, heatwaves and cyclones have clearly a negative effect on mental health with higher rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is expected that there will be an increased burden of disease in Australia. Our health services and resources are at risk to be overloaded. Prevention or limitation of climate change is essential and urgent for there is no cure.

This doesn’t consider the indirect health effects from climate change through economic loss that impacts on health services and Public Health systems

I have sourced data for this article from:

Written by: Dr. Astrid Knirsch, local GP and Member of Doctors for the Environment Australia

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