Climate change does not simply pose a threat to everything we know as a society today. There is a significant health threat associated with changing weather patterns and some geographies may be harder hit than others. The danger is all-encompassing.
At the tail-end of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s gaze has shifted to climate change and the impact that it would have in the near, medium, and longer-term future. 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.
And 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 would be lower-income communities, children and pregnant women, senior adults, and persons with disabilities, and pre-existing conditions amongst others.
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 now we must deal with it. There is no question that climate change will bring about a significant impact on health and healthcare, too.
In many instances, it is along the value chain such as food security, which is paired with nutrition, and in turn, the associated diseases and conditions that may emanate. These may include increased risk of cancer, dental problems, weight gain and appropriate growth in children, mental health challenges, and diabetes, amongst others.
Climate change will also place additional pressure on healthcare systems.
Ground-level ozone, or smog, holds several respiratory dangers, and consequences can include lung conditions, asthma, or compounded as a pre-existing condition, while water-borne threats like cholera could become more widespread. Diseases previously thought under a measure of control, like Malaria, could begin to spread again in previously eradicated areas. Lyme disease and dengue fever also count among ecologically-based diseases that may make an unwelcome return.
The list of mild to severe impacts on the wellness of the world is substantial. Add to this the direct consequences of climate change that we have seen rearing its head already. Instances of heatwaves where sunstroke, cardiovascular failures, and other related deaths occur. Flooding, as we have recently seen in KwaZulu Natal, causes damage to property, injury, and death to people.
While endeavours to slow climate change continues to be on the global agenda, it is imperative that action be taken. And it’s not simply about reducing carbon emissions. It is also about the damage to the environment through activities like deforestation, over-grazing, waste management, and the like. In fact, almost every aspect of our lives would have to shape-shift responsibly in a collective attempt to counter a tsunami that humanity has started.
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. To effectively manage the impact of pressure on healthcare, it is imperative that greater emphasis be placed on primary healthcare.
This is particularly true for emerging markets and countries where low-income population segments and unemployment or poverty are rife. South Africa is at risk. Significant investment and round-table collaboration between role-players are now more critical than ever. It requires 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 Organisation (WHO) estimated that by 2030, the cost of direct damage to health because of climate change could be between two to four billion dollars, and that excludes ancillary price tags of clean water and sanitation for example. The institution also projected an additional 250 000 deaths annually between now and 2050, directly related to the impact of climate change.
Primary healthcare is where illness or disease can be treated most effectively, and progressive infections, as well as their impact, can be managed at the genesis of disease. Climate change is the biggest threat to humanity and life as we know it now.