Right now, medical communities around the globe continue to face both new and old challenges. These include untreatable diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as relatively new infectious ailments like hantavirus, SARS and hepatitis C.
In the future, however, some of the biggest challenges for medical communities may come from an unexpected source — climate change.
Here is the impact that climate change may have on our health — and how the medical community can prepare to respond.
How Global Warming May Lead to Disease
According to current WHO estimates, global warming could lead to an additional 250,000 deaths each year, primarily from malnutrition, malaria and heat stress. WHO experts also believe that it may already be encouraging the spread of infectious disease, and could be part of the reason for the recent increase in the expansion of many contagious illnesses.
These estimates primarily focus on countries with weak infrastructure and poor access to healthcare — however, climate change is likely to also have major effects even in developed countries.
Recently, epidemiologists have begun to predict that this weather phenomenon may be a shaping force when it comes to future epidemics. They expect that cases of insect-transmitted diseases — like tick-borne Lyme disease and dengue fever — are likely to increase and spread in range as temperatures rise. People suffering from diseases caused by global warming may become a common occurrence.
Cooler temperatures have limited the breeding range of disease-transmitting mosquitoes in the past. However, it’s likely that even colder developed regions, like the United States — which have traditionally escaped the brunt of conditions like dengue fever — won’t be spared forever, if temperatures continue to rise.
It’s not all bad news, however. Higher levels of warmth may limit the spread of disease in areas that are already reasonably warm. However, these locations are also some of the most likely to bear the brunt of other climate-change-related health risks, such as water scarcity, heat stress and injury.
How Climate Change Can Affect Injury Rates
In addition to increasing the potential range of disease, global warming may also have significant impacts on how often people are injured. From years of research, we know that dangerously high levels of heat, even if not sustained over long periods, are generally bad for health.
More recent research has shown heat can lead to social changes, too, that increase rates of injury. Some studies have linked higher temperatures to increase in violent crime, suicide and traffic accidents. One study has already pinned record levels of road deaths in the US in 2015 on elevated temperatures that were, at least in part, likely the result of climate change.
Some effects of global warming — notably decreased rainfall and higher local temperatures — could also have significant impacts on animal health and agriculture. A lack of rain and unpredictable weather, coupled with a potentially enormous scope of animal diseases, may lead to decreased agricultural yields, food scarcity or unexpected impacts on human health.
How the Medical Community Can Prepare
Clinicians will need to prepare for infectious diseases in areas where current incidence is low or none, as well as other changes that may come as a result of climate change. They must be aware of how heat can change how viruses spread, as well as what kind of illnesses and injuries they’re likely to deal with.
The medical community should be ready to communicate with patients about the potential for new or previously rare conditions. Some epidemiologists have even encouraged clinicians to talk to their patients and community members about global warming and the impact it may have on their health.
Medical communities in states already prone to heat — especially Sun Belt states like California, Texas and Florida — are likely to face the brunt of the changes that come from changing climates. Clinicians in these areas should educate themselves on the relationship between global warming, health and the availability of treatments.
How Rising Temperatures May Impact Health
Rising temperatures may soon cause a wide variety of health crises. Infections could spread further than usual; car accidents could increase and issues already plaguing heat-stricken areas — like water scarcity and heat stress — could become more severe.
The medical community may need to prepare for a future where global warming causes more diseases. Clinicians and medical practitioners should learn about what effects a transforming world may have on human and animal health.