One of the greatest threats to human health in developed societies is climate change. There is now consensus among scientists confirming the existence of global warming, due in part to rising greenhouse gas emissions as a result of human activity (Anstey, 2013). Climate change is widely recognized as a major threat to human health due to its direct effects on a variety of systems including on environmental, social, and public health infrastructure (Shin & Ha, 2012).
The impacts of climate change can be seen at the individual level when examining the direct effects it has on human health and disease. Global warming has led to increased cases of heatstroke, climate sensitive infectious diseases, increased cardiovascular disease, and malaria (Anstey, 2013). The depletion of the ozone layer has led to increased ultraviolet radiation, increasing the risk of skin cancer, and causing temperatures to rise (WHO, 2013). In turn, rising temperatures had led to altered infectious disease risks as pathogenic species and their hosts are now emerging in regions that were previously too cold for their survival (Raffa, Eltoukhy & Raffa, 2012). This has many health implications, including the spread of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever and gastroenteritis, to regions that have never been exposed to these illnesses and therefore have not developed any resistance (Anstey, 2013). Changes in air quality has impacted respiratory health, as increased morbidity and mortality rates can be seen for patients with chronic lung conditions such as asthma, due to heat waves, pollution, and natural disasters (Bernstein & Rice, 2013).
The effects of climate change can be particularly devastating when examining the populations who are most directly effected by global warming. Although the effects of climate change will be suffered disproportionately by those living in developing nations who are reliant on agriculture for their survival, many of the same vulnerable groups including children and the ill are impacted in developed nations (La Trobe, 2002). In the early 2000’s 88% of the deaths due to climate change were children whose physiological immaturity leads to increased vulnerability to temperature extremes, infections and malnutrition, which can be compounded by living in poverty (Kiang, Graham & Farrant, 2013). Individuals with chronic illness may suffer deteriorating conditions as evidenced in the case of patients with chronic lung conditions such as asthma (Bernstein & Rice, 2013).
The changing climate will have a devastating impact on almost all forms of infrastructure in the developed world. These effects will be seen in the form of deforestation, land degradation, housing and shelter and additional strain placed on health care services due to the increasing number of natural disasters and medical conditions exacerbated by climate change (La Trobe, 2002). The agricultural sector is particularly susceptible to climactic change, which has economic implications including rising food costs and food shortages, serving to promote and enhance poverty, which is known to have adverse impacts on health (Heltberg, Siegel & Jorgensen, 2009). The impacts of climate change on human health will also affect the labour productivity and demand for health services in many respects including increased demand for mental health services after natural disaster, increased respiratory diseases, and increased cases of vector-borne illnesses (Bosello, Roson & Tol, 2006).
Climate change is the greatest threat to human health and is an issue that needs to be addressed by policy makers, due to the many implications it has on health. Climate change directly and indirectly affects health though lack of food and safe drinking water, poor sanitation, population migration, changing disease patterns and morbidity, more frequent extreme weather events, and lack of shelter (Rylander, Odland & Sandanger, 2013). Its impact can be seen at the individual level through its effects on disease and illness, the disproportionate consequences faced by vulnerable populations, and the impacts on infrastructure needed to promote positive health outcomes. Environmental degradation may be an irreversible act, highlighting the need for immediate measures to safeguard the integrity of natural ecosystems, thereby lessening its impact on human health (WHO, 2013).
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