Safeguarding health in a warming world
By Seth Berkley
When natural disasters strike, the death toll from floods, famines, or building collapses is often just the beginning; the sickness and disease that follow sometimes do far more damage. As global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, so, too, does the frequency and intensity of natural disasters and, with them, the risk of deadly epidemics and endemic disease outbreaks.
A resilient primary health-care system is the best defense against such devastation. Yet it occupies little space on the climate agenda. This is a serious shortcoming, because health systems tend to be particularly vulnerable to environmental shocks, whether climate-related or otherwise. According to a recent World Health Organization study, 84% of 94 countries assessed are not prepared to detect and respond to a disease outbreak.
Beyond compromising immediate disaster response, failure to build resilience into health-care systems undermines the long-term delivery of basic health interventions, exacerbating the vulnerability of the system – and of the population it serves. In many cases, those who are likely to suffer the most severe consequences of climate change – such as the poor – have the least access to reliable and effective primary health care, including even the most basic services.
It is not just poor countries that need to worry. In the coming decades, rising temperatures are expected to accelerate the return of disease vectors, such as the Aedes aegypti mosquito, to parts of Europe and North America, and even cause them to spread to new regions as far north as Canada. This could lead to a resurgence of yellow fever, which was once pervasive in the United States and parts of Europe, and outbreaks of dengue fever and Zika virus. Based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data the combination of climate change and population growth is predicted to put an additional 6 billion people at risk of dengue infection by 2080.
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