Hussh | Beyond the heat: How climate shifts are impacting global health

Beyond the heat: How climate shifts are impacting global health

We’re in an era of rapid scientific advancements. One where vaccines are developed at breakneck speed and the potential to eradicate some of the world’s most debilitating diseases is within grasp.

Just this week, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a pair of scientists who developed the technology that led to the mRNA Covid vaccines that arguably brought us from the brink of calamity just a couple of years ago.

And this shouldn’t go underrated. Yet behind the shiny pharmaceutical rhetoric and international awards and there still lurks a silent nemesis: the climate crisis. 

It’s a profound irony that the very planet which sustains us is also incubating threats that challenge our hard-won victories over diseases.

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Deep in the labyrinths of the Amazon rainforest and the terraced rice paddies of Asia, the mosquito buzzes—innocuous in sound, lethal in action. 

Historically, mankind has made considerable strides against the diseases the insects spread, including most notably malaria. By 2021, determined global strategies, including insecticides and bed nets, had slashed fatalities to below 600,000 from approximately 900,000 in 2000, according to data from WHO.

However, the canvas of climate change paints a more ominous picture. 

Warming climes are the new breeding grounds for the most deadly of mosquito species, extending their reach and bringing with them once-controlled diseases like malaria. Species like Aedes aegypti, the harbingers of dengue, Zika, and chikungunya, are revelling in this thermal boon, striking in areas once untouched.

This intersection of climate and health isn’t confined merely to the realm of infectious diseases. It’s a multifaceted catastrophe.

Labourers in Qatar are wrestling with the punishing heat; haze-enshrouded skylines of North America are experiencing unprecedented wildfires, even for the season; and flooding rains, while life-sustaining for many, have also tainted drinking water in regions like Malawi. 

Even as scientists work tirelessly against respiratory ailments, over two billion people inhale fire-related pollutants each year, eroding the gains heralded by regulatory measures like the 1970 Clean Air Act.

It seems even water, the elixir of life, has turned traitor. 

Floods have set the stage for cholera resurgences, with Pakistan serving as a poignant example—a country that once held cholera at bay now grapples with outbreaks in the aftermath of debilitating floods.

“Climate-induced economic hardship is real. But air pollution, extreme weather events, and gradual climatic shifts harm human health at an unprecedented scale,” explains Neil Buddy Shah of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, underscoring this dual peril.

Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t end there. As our planet warms, it’s not merely the resurrection of old foes that’s concerning, but also the advent of new ones. 

With soaring temperatures come heatwaves, culminating in tragedies like the 61,000 heat-related fatalities in Europe last year.

Yet, the blows aren’t meted out uniformly. Refugees, often displaced due to climatic cataclysms, grapple with compromised health facilities, and are forced into close quarters which makes disease transmission not just likely, but almost inevitable.

Disease emergence is also catalysed by the fraying boundary between wilderness and urban sprawl. Renowned epidemiologist Larry Brilliant noted how “human beings and animals are intruding into each other’s territories like never before, leading to an unprecedented meeting of viruses at the urban-wildlife interface.”

Yet, as the tapestry of health and climate becomes ever more intricate, there’s also a glimmer of hope. 

The annual global climate summit, COP, is introducing a dedicated Health Day—a testament to the burgeoning realisation of this interplay. 

While overdue, it symbolises a new realisation and recognition in international discourse; one where the climate and health paradigms converge.

Global health experts, while encouraged by this shift, voice concerns about the inadequacy of attention. Merely 0.5 percent of climate funding addresses health projects, indicative of health’s historical absence from the climate agenda.

Our future demands an amalgamation of our relentless pursuit of scientific advancements with an acute awareness of the inexorable ties between climate and health. 

The challenge is monumental, but so too is our collective ability. The balance of our planet and the health of us all are, after all, intertwined fates. The next chapter hinges on our choices, strategies, and collaborative endeavours.