Climate and weather impacts on human health

Human health is vulnerable. It becomes even more vulnerable when climate and weather change. The effects of such change are becoming more evident. Reports indicate that the mean surface temperature of the earth has risen by nearly 1oC over the last century. And the rise is expected to progress, with definite impacts on sea-level rise, weather behavior and ozone layer; which means greater vulnerability to life on earth.

Extremes of temperatures and weather events are known to give rise to high risks of heat and cold-related illnesses, even deaths, and to imbalances in the ecological systems. They lead to high incidence of vector-borne diseases, diarrhoeal and other infectious diseases, injuries, psychological disorders and deaths, and damage to infrastructure. Resulting biological impacts of air pollution including pollens and spores cannot be underestimated. Their incidence on conditions of asthma, allergic and respiratory disorders can have fatal consequences. Studies show that dust mite growth is optimal at a temperature of 25oC and a humidity of 75%.

In Western Europe the heat waves of summer 2003 caused some 35 000 extra deaths. France alone counted 15 000 fatalities. The most affected population included older people above 70, mainly women.

Change in precipitation will bring about water-related health issues. Natural disasters like floods and droughts; diet and nutrition problems; increase in plant pests resulting in increase in pesticide use and pesticide intoxication are some of the concerns that would need to be addressed.

Sea-level rise will inevitably provoke displacement of population and damage to infrastructure thereby increasing the risks of infectious diseases and psychological disorders with precarious hygiene and habitation conditions.

Ozone hole has already been identified in the Antarctic and ozone depletion in the Arctic region. This will lead to increased exposure of people to ultraviolet radiation with dangerous consequences. Skin diseases and cancer, eye diseases and cataract, and immune system suppression are likely to threaten the human health to a greater extent. Reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that every year some 60 000 people are killed around the world as a result of excessive exposure to the sun. Out of this figure malignant melanomas and skin carcinomas account for about 48 000 and 12 000 respectively

With this background the socio-economic dimensions of climate change are multifold. Public health consequences including mental health, nutritional impairment, and civil strife are but a few issues that will polarize more and more attention. Action needs to focus on effective prevention strategies integrated into well-designed preparedness planning systems. Accurate and timely weather forecasts, a sound understanding of the health effects, information and advice to the population, and targeting the most vulnerable groups are vital in order to be able to mitigate the far-reaching consequences of global climate and weather change.

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