July 2022


Climate impacts health, vulnerable groups most affected

The temperature in Delhi and adjoining areas soared up to 49 degrees Celsius this May. In January this year, the temperature had gone down 10 degrees below normal and settled at a maximum temperature of 12 degrees Celsius. March began with a temperature of 26 degrees Celsius and by the end of the month, the temperature rose to 32.9 degrees Celsius. The northern part of the country is not alone; the entire country and people in every region on Earth are experiencing climate change, which is adversely affecting their health and wellbeing.

Unprecedented storms, floods, drought, heat, and cold waves are adding to the existing burden of countries on both communicable and non-communicable diseases. Changes in climatic conditions affect the health of people across the world but the vulnerable groups in the developing nations are the worst sufferers. They include the elderly, children, pregnant women, infants, the unborn, and those suffering from any underlying health-related condition.

Extreme weather, sudden rise and fall in temperature, and increased pollution create an imbalance in the ecosystem leading to fast transmission of vector-borne diseases. If the length of certain seasons increases, the health system struggles to cope with the change in the calendar of epidemics. Water-related illnesses, insect-borne diseases, and fungal and bacterial infections increase if it rains continuously whereas drought causes a shortage of water and rise in the presence of airborne toxins. Besides the direct impact on health, climate change causes low crop yields and affects the health of livestock too. This impacts nutrition and makes the problem of malnutrition and stunting among children in low and middle-income countries even more severe.

India successfully eradicated smallpox and then polio but many other diseases like acute encephalitis syndrome (AES), Japanese encephalitis (JE), kala-azar, measles, diphtheria, chickenpox, diarrhoea, malaria, filariasis, dengue, chikungunya, and also tuberculosis (TB) continue to trouble the health administration.

India successfully eradicated smallpox and then polio but many other diseases like acute encephalitis syndrome (AES), Japanese encephalitis (JE), kala-azar, measles, diphtheria, chickenpox, diarrhoea, malaria, filariasis, dengue, chikungunya, and also tuberculosis (TB) continue to trouble the health administration. The country’s target to eradicate TB by 2025, five years ahead of the global target, faced a major roadblock with the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) associated Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020. The health system across the globe including in developed nations was almost on the brink of collapse. NGOs in India silently but substantially helped the government address the crisis.

Even as the threat from newer variants and sub-variants of the virus continues to hang like a sword of Damocles over our heads, newer diseases in the form of monkeypox have also started taking a toll on the daily lives of people now. The transmission pattern of these communicable diseases is affected because of prolonged rainfall, humidity, rise, and fall in temperature.

India has over the years to some extent learned how to avert casualties during a natural calamity but the public health system is still inept to manage epidemics which are likely to increase along with the changing weather conditions and disasters like tsunamis, super cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

Climate change is also a cause for rapid growth in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which are at present the leading cause of death globally. Cancer, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), chronic respiratory diseases, and mental health disorders are now taking more and more people even in rural areas and small towns of India in its grip. Exposure to pollutants like carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, ozone, lead, and other particulate matter in the air; extreme rise in mercury levels, and intake of highly refined foods are the leading causes of NCDs, specifically diabetes, CVDs, and respiratory issues. Likewise, extreme temperatures worsen the condition of those already suffering from mental health disorders like schizophrenia and depression. They need immediate attention and a change in medication.

But in a country where mental health is still a social stigma, understanding that people in psychological distress need special care will take a lot more time and effort.

But what concerns more is the effect of climate change on the unborn, increasing the risk of complications during birth, congenital anomalies in the foetus, preterm and low-weight births, and also stillbirths. Exposure to severe heat and pollution also affects pregnant and lactating women. Elevated blood pressure level causes preeclampsia in pregnant women and also postpartum depression in new mothers.

Highly-populated developing nations will continue to bear the brunt of transmission of communicable diseases while also facing the challenges posed because of lifestyle changes. With insured private healthcare high-priced and essential health services out of reach of most people, a well-designed climate change policy agreed upon and well implemented by all nations can be the savior. But what we also need is major lifestyle changes and resource management which can be done when more and more people are made aware about the consequences of climate catastrophes.

If the global temperature rise this century has to be kept below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as aimed in the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015, the governments and NGOs in India will have to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, the Goal 13 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

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