Nursing Online – November 2008

Global warming puts the heat on health

Global warming will have  significant effects on patterns of disease and illness. This month Nursing Online features several recent reports.

Garnaut Climate Change Review: The impacts of climate change on three health outcomes: temperature-related mortality and hospitalisations, salmonellosis and other bacterial gastroenteritis, and population at risk from dengue
Hilary Bambrick, Keith Dear, Rosalie Woodruff, Ivan Hanigan, Anthony McMichael, June 2008

Climate change will affect the health of Australians over this century in many ways. Some impacts will become evident before others. Some will occur via quite direct pathways (eg heatwaves and death); others will occur via in-direct pathways entailing disturbances of natural ecological systems (eg mosquito population range and activity) or disruption to livelihoods and communities (eg mental health consequences of prolonged droughts and regional drying trends).

Most health impacts will occur at different levels among regions and population sub-groups, reflecting the influence of environment, socioeconomic circumstances, infrastructural and institutional resources, and local preventive (adaptive) strategies on the patterns of disease. The likely health impacts are many and varied. The main health risks in Australia from climate change include:

  • health impacts of weather disasters (floods, storms, cyclones, bushfires, etc.);
  • health impacts of temperature extremes, including heatwaves;
  • mosquito-borne infectious diseases (eg dengue fever, Ross River virus disease);
  • food-borne infectious diseases (including those due to Salmonella, Campylobacter and many other microbes);
  • water-borne infectious diseases, and other health risks from poor water quality;
  • diminished food availability: yields, costs/affordability, nutritional consequences;
  • increases in urban air pollution (eg ozone), and the interaction of this environmental health hazard with meteorological conditions;
  • changes in aeroallergens (spores, pollens), potentially exacerbating asthma and other allergic respiratory diseases;
  • mental health consequences of social, economic and demographic dislocations (e.g. in parts of rural Australia, and via disruptions to traditional ways of living in remote Indigenous communities).$File/

Australian Health Policy Institute Policy Briefing Paper #2, August 2006.
WARNING: A rising temperature can be a sign of illness  
Stephen Leeder

The health effects of global warming are largely indirect and follow from its effect on forests and farmland. As regions become either warmer and wetter or warmer and drier, the distribution of diseases due to mosquitoes, especially but not exclusively malaria, will change.
Knowledge is not at a stage where global predictions can be made confidently. Increases in city temperatures already carrying substantial air pollution burdens, could mean trouble for people with respiratory disorders. More droughts may be handled in Australia, but what of the effects of these events upon less economically advanced nations where some of the world’s 800 million malnourished people live?

Climate Change Health Check 2020
Dr Graeme Horton, Professor Tony McMichael, Doctors for the Environment, Australia, April 2008

In 2020, it is likely that Australian doctors and other health professionals will be seeing patients with a diverse range of climate change-related illnesses. The more vulnerable members of our community will be most affected by climate-related illnesses. These include the elderly who cope less well with changes in temperature, and young children whose developing lungs are susceptible to ambient air pollution.

Climate change is of great relevance to the health care that will be provided by health professionals in coming years. Australians need to know how our changing climate will affect the health of our community and there is an important role for health professionals to raise awareness in this area. Planning for climate change should be part of every future deliberation in health services and this should include preparation for potentially large numbers of environmental refugees in our region as the century progresses. Effective health strategies will require collaboration between health professionals and other sectors of the community.

Climate Change and Primary Health Care  
Grant Blashki, Tony McMichael, David Karoly

Climate change and rising average global temperatures threaten to disrupt the physical, biological and ecological life support systems on which human health depends. This article overviews the evidence for human induced climate change, the predicted health impacts, and the role of primary health care professionals in managing these impacts. Primary health care has an important role in preparing for and responding to these climate change-related threats to human health.