Climate change: a massive strain on healthcare
Climate change: a massive strain on healthcare
Climate change poses a major threat to everything we know as a society today. Part of this is the significant health threat associated with changing weather patterns, with some areas potentially being harder hit than others.
“At the tail-end of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s gaze has shifted to climate change and the impact that it will have in the near, medium, and longer-term future,” says Mustafa Kamel, medical affairs director for Janssen South Africa. “It is a stark reality and variations in severity are expected to be unequally distributed around the globe. Some places may become colder, but are balanced out by other regions experiencing warmer winters, for example. Included in the package are more frequent and severe weather conditions. We have already seen these phenomena emerge.”
Just as temperature and weather changes will be distributed unequally, so too will the impact of climate change be disproportionately scattered. Population segments most at risk could include lower-income communities, children, pregnant women, senior adults, persons with disabilities, and those with pre-existing conditions.
While the risks are complex, there is no question that climate change will have significant impacts on health and healthcare, placing additional pressure on healthcare systems. “Ground level ozone, or smog, holds several respiratory dangers and consequences can include lung conditions, asthma, or compounded pre-existing conditions,” notes Kamel. “Waterborne threats like cholera could become more widespread, while diseases thought to be under a measure of control, like malaria, could begin to spread again in previously eradicated areas. Lyme disease and dengue fever also count among the ecologically-based diseases that may make an unwelcome return. The list of mild to severe impacts on the wellness of the world is substantial,” he adds.
In many instances, health impacts may take place along the value chain. Food security, for example, is paired not only with nutrition, but the associated diseases and conditions that may emanate if it is compromised. This may include increased risk of cancer, dental problems, weight gain, diabetes, and mental health challenges.
Add to this the direct consequences of climate change, many of which we have already seen rearing their heads. Increasingly severe heatwaves are causing serious sunstroke, cardiovascular failures, and other potentially lethal conditions, while flooding, as we have recently seen in KwaZulu-Natal, causes injury, death, and damage to property and businesses.
While endeavours to slow climate change remain on the global agenda, it is imperative that action be taken … and it’s not simply about reducing carbon emissions. There is untold damage being done to the environment through activities like deforestation, overgrazing, overfishing, poor waste management, and many other human activities.
In fact, almost every aspect of our lives would need to undergo a quantum shift in responsibility – a collective attempt to counteract the deathly downward spiral that humanity has started. Now it is up to us to manage its severity, says Kamel: “We would be saving ourselves, and while the full impact of climate change may only be a scientific guessing game at present, governments around the world have taken note and are planning to meet the potentially inevitable. Healthcare is no different.”
Greater emphasis should be placed on primary healthcare, says Kamel, to effectively manage the various negative climate-related impacts of pressures on healthcare systems. This is particularly true for emerging markets and countries where low-income population segments and unemployment or poverty are rife. In other words, South Africa is at risk.
Significant investment and round-table collaboration between role players are now more critical than ever. We require national policy changes and a collaborative effort between authorities, the pharmaceutical industry, healthcare practitioners, the private hospital sector, and wellness organisations.
The opportunity cost is potentially enormous. Already the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2030, the cost of direct damage to health because of climate change could be between US$2 billion and US$4 billion, and that excludes, for example, the ancillary price tags of clean water and sanitation. The WHO also projects an additional 250 000 deaths annually between now and 2050, directly related to the impacts of climate change.
Climate change is the biggest threat to humanity and life as we know it. “Think about what all of this really means. Just imagine your daily life: clean drinking water, the air we breathe, the food that we eat, the flights we take, and the fossil fuels we consume. We created this monster, and we must deal with it,” Kamel emphasises. “Let’s do something about it, now.”