With growing evidence that our climate is changing, we predict the key health challenges arising from a warmer climate:
- Heat related illnesses and mortality from exposure to extreme temperatures. This will particularly impact on people who work outdoors or in non-air conditioned environments, plus infants, older people, the ill and obsese, who are more susceptible to heat stress and dehydration. Heatwaves are already a leading cause of death compared to other types of natural disasters (particularly in developed nations where preparedness levels for violent storms and earthquakes generally lead to significantly fewer fatalities than those affecting developing nations). For example, excess mortality of up to 70,000 people was associated with the severe European heatwave of 2003. More broadly, higher temperatures may also provide excuses for some people to exercise less, potentially increasing rates of health conditions associated with a more sedentary lifestyle.
- Water supply contamination during extreme precipitation and flood events. Flooding in Brisbane in 2011 led to the temporary closure of one of the main water treatment plants as the incoming water was too muddy to be treated. On that occasion water supply interruptions were avoided on that occasion by re-routing supply from other treatment plants and implementing demand reduction strategies. However, there are likely to be increasing situations where extreme weather jeopardises fresh water supplies or people are otherwise forced to drink untreated water, potentially leading to a range of illnesses.
- Exposure to flood waters and the after-effect of floods. It is not uncommon in many areas for sewage systems to overflow during significant flooding, raising infection rates. Receding flood-waters can become breeding grounds for mosquitos and other potentially harmful insects. Mould in buildings resulting from exposure to flood waters can in turn cause a variety of health conditions. And of course the murky and often fast moving water presents public safety issues for people unfortunate or unwary enough to find themselves trapped or engulfed.
- A rise in the frequency and/or intensity of extreme weather events may also result in greater injuries / illnesses and demand for emergency services.
- The spread of tropical, insect-borne diseases to areas in higher altitudes and higher latitudes as it becomes warmer. Insect carriers of such diseases thrive in the tropics because it is warm overnight and all year round, meaning no die off in cooler months as is common in temperate climates. Meteorologists are already observing milder winters and warmer nights in many areas as the atmosphere retains more heat.
- Additional health risks arise from the greater expected incidence of bush fires (not to mention an increase in lightning strikes). For example, during the summer of 2010 an estimated 55,000 people died in Russia from a combination of a severe heat wave and respiratory illnesses exacerbated by a resultant series of major bush fires.
Given these challenges, risks abound in the healthcare and public safety arena, but so do opportunities. Throw in our ageing and growing population plus the increase in non-communicable diseases and it seems that growth in demand for healthcare services is assured, though affordability may be a key consideration given reduced public sector capacity.
Key opportunities to reduce these impacts include:
- training and education of at risk groups;
- risk assessments;
- preventative pharmaceuticals and related interventions;
- water purification;
- waste water infrastructure;
- specialist clothing;
- air filtration and cooling systems;
- personal and networked health monitoring technologies;
- other hazard reduction.
- increasing demand for existing and new drugs and forms of treatment for conditions related to heat, water contamination and tropical diseases and other exposures.
- Health Infrastructure:
- increasing demand for health professionals and emergency workers;
- associated infrastructure, hospital beds;
- hospitals located in regions exposed to extreme weather will need to be made more resilient.
- sustainable medical procurement;
- medical waste recycling;
- energy and water efficiency improvements in medical practice;
- other technologies and innovations to reduce environmental impact of healthcare.
On the flip side, there are a number of significant health benefits associated with a switch from fossil fuel dominated energy systems to renewables, principally a likely reduction in a range of respiratory illnesses given reduced particulate matter pollution. Given a warming climate, less severe winters in some regions may also reduce cold-related morbidity.
Adaptive Capability assists businesses in and servicing the healthcare sector to assess the risks and opportunities arising from climate change and environmental issues. We help our clients position their businesses to capture sustainable growth over the medium to long term. Our unique diagnostic tool, the AdaptiveCMM, baselines your organisation’s capabilities and delivers a roadmap of initiatives to control risks and identify new or enhanced revenue streams.
Talk to Adaptive Capability today to future proof your business.
Image credit: Rob Bayer/ShutterStock