Scientist: Climate change ‘playing havoc’ with health systems

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Global warming has brought an increase in heat-related deaths, food poisoning and tick-borne diseases, but flu pandemics may decline as temperatures rise, according to Jan Semenza, scientific advisor at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Jan Semenza, is a scientific advisor at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Semenza was speaking to Gary Finnegan

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What impact has climate change already had on health? 

There are several examples of how climate change has affected public health. During the heat wave in Europe in 2003, climate change had a devastating impact on public health. Over 70,000 excess deaths occurred during the summer of 2003, based on a recent analysis. A number of floods and heavy precipitation events have also caused a number of health problems. 

We know, for example, that many water-borne outbreaks have been linked to extreme rain events; such events are predicted to increase as a result of climate change. We also know that tick-borne diseases have expanded their range with increasing temperatures, but there are many other factors that have also contributed to the expansion of these diseases. 

Do you expect resurgence of infectious diseases in Europe?

Many infectious diseases have a strong climate link and ECDC aims to support EU member states to mount an effective response to these challenges in order to contain possible outbreaks and health problems. 

For example, vectors involved in disease transmission are temperature sensitive; thus, climate change will impact the distribution of these vector-borne diseases. However, we do not anticipate a resurgence across the board of infectious diseases since there are many other factors that will counteract the expansion of infectious diseases in Europe. 

Can you give any examples?

In 2007, a tropical disease arrived in Italy and afflicted over 200 individuals. The disease, called Chikungunya, is transmitted by the Asian Tiger mosquito. The event per se was not caused by climate change, but climate played a role in the expansion of the mosquito that transmitted the disease. 

ECDC has developed distribution maps for the Asian Tiger mosquito and documented its relationship to climatic variables. 

Another vector-borne disease is Tick-Borne Encephalitis which has been shown to expand in altitude and latitude in the Czech Republic and Sweden. Food-borne diseases are also temperature sensitive: higher temperatures are associated with more salmonella and campylobacter. Thus, it is likely that climate change will have an impact on these diseases too. 

At ECDC a small team of experts are leading on the above challenges and are committed to support EU Member States to contain these problems. ECDC is also aiming to develop the European Environment and Epidemiology (E3) network, which could link climatic/environmental and infectious disease data in order to strengthen European capacity in forecasting, monitoring and responding to the threats posed by new and emerging diseases. 

Could climate change lead to more pandemics?

It depends what kind of pandemics you are referring to. In the case of influenza, a shortening of the winter season, as a result of climate change, might actually shorten the transmission period for the influenza virus. 

Apart from infections, are there other health effects (e.g. chronic pulmonary diseases)?

The biggest threat to human health is heat-related mortality and morbidity. Heat waves are predicted to increase in intensity, frequency and duration under climate change scenarios. 

Heat wave plans have been developed since the heat wave in Chicago in 1995 with early warnings and predictions that can trigger targeted interventions for vulnerable groups. 

Will the health impacts of climate change have a disproportionate effect on the world's poorest people?

Green house gas emissions originate predominantly from developed countries. However, the biggest impact from climate change is expected to occur in developing countries. Natural disasters such as floods and droughts can have devastating social, economic and health consequences and disrupt food production, particularly in developing countries. 

Do you think health concerns are being ignored in the debate on climate change?

Should world leaders put more focus on health issues during the climate talks in Copenhagen? Health issues have largely been overlooked in the debate on climate change. ECDC has contributed to a policy paper at the COP15 meeting in order to raise the profile of health in these deliberations. ECDC hopes that health issues will be increasingly considered for policy decisions. 

What contribution does healthcare make to climate change (i.e. the carbon footprint of hospitals) and how can this be addressed?

Access to care is crucial to reduce vulnerabilities in populations. For example, malaria treatment is not only essential for the health of an afflicted individual but also to prevent the propagation of an outbreak. Thus, health care is a key player in adaptation strategies. Needless to say that the footprint of the health care system is too high, just like any other sector in society. 

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