Climate change continues to pose a major threat to the health of many communities, especially the most vulnerable, around the world.
This was the view expressed by Prof Bob Mash from the Department of Family and Emergency Medicine at Stellenbosch University in a recent Stellenbosch Forum lecture. The lecture, the sixth in the series for 2022, was themed 'Climate change: the greatest global health threat of the 21st century'.
The Stellenbosch Forum lecture series was started in 1990 and provides regular opportunities to SU staff and students as well as members of the public to learn more about the world-class research conducted at SU. Presented in an accessible and understandable way, these lectures offer both academics and non-academics a platform for critical debate across disciplinary boundaries.
In his lecture, Mash mentioned the droughts in the Kilifi County in Kenya and the floods in KwaZulu-Natal as examples of how climate change is affecting people's health.
“The failure of crops, the death of livestock from the heat and lack of water in Kilifi have led to massive malnutrition and food insecurity in the local population.
“In KwaZulu-Natal, floods damaged clinics and hospitals. Many people lost their chronic medication and there were worries about the outbreak of waterborne diseases."
Mash added that extreme temperatures have health consequences such as heat exhausting and heat strokes. “The extreme heat has also interestingly been linked to increased aggression and a whole variety of skin problems.
“Poor people in informal settlements, those with pre-existing conditions, the elderly and children are likely to suffer the most from these high temperatures."
Mash said malaria and waterborne disease such as cholera will also spread, and injuries and trauma would be the direct effect of extreme climate events such as floods, fires and storms.
“All the effects of climate change will increase mental health problems, particularly post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, amongst our communities."
According to Mash, we should improve the resilience of health services to respond to the effects of climate change.
“We need leadership and governance, sufficient human resources in the health workforce, capacity-building and training, better awareness and communications in pre-service and in-service training, emergency preparedness and the management of disasters and extreme weather events.
“We also need to identify the climate-sensitive diseases that are relevant to our populations and then bring in surveillance of these diseases. We need to link the early warning systems to the health sector. This might mean bringing in indicators such as agricultural or meteorological indicators into the health sectors that are not necessarily health related."
Mash added that another way to improve the resilience of health services would be to build health facilities that are resistant to extreme temperatures and to heat, to look at sustainable energy and water supplies and secure emergency communications, and to maintain the supply chain of medication and other provisions during emergencies.
“Health services programmes need to look at how they anticipate the effects on nutrition on infectious diseases, outbreaks, on heat-related conditions, on allergies, on mental health and injuries and trauma.
“We need to fund the resilience of our healthcare system."
Mash concluded his talk by urging the health sector to also reduce its contribution to climate change.
“Estimates are that healthcare's climate footprint is equivalent to 4,4% of global net emissions. Putting this is simpler terms – if the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter on the planet."