EHFG Closing Plenary: Climate Change – Are we waking up too late for this Public Health Emergency?

Climate change seems to be buzzing these days and this afternoon’s plenary session, which also officially closed this year’s Gastein Forum, was another moment to properly address this issue. Just last week, leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit boosted climate action momentum, demonstrating recognition that the pace of climate action must be rapidly accelerated. And 65 countries committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, while 70 countries announced they will either boost their national action plans by 2020 or have started the process of doing so.

But haven’t we been pledging these goals and recognizing the problem for the past years? Aren’t we already reaping what we’ve been sewing? And what’s health got to do with it?

Andy Haines, Professor of Public Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine joined the Plenary via Skype (giving a great do-what-you-preach example reducing greatly his personal carbon footprint) and briefly presented us the evidence of what are the ongoing effects of climate change on Health. Professor Andy Haines categorized these effects into direct effects, indirect effects and climate effects mediated through social systems.

As an example, we have been more aware of heatwaves and their effects on raising mortality, with evidence piling up, and the same with extreme cold, especially in areas with less robust housing. We have also been seeing how climate changes influence the development of epidemics. Climate extremes, especially excessive rainfall or drought can disrupt the environment bringing some animal species into closer contact with populations, or significantly increase vector breeding sites. Practical evidence of this is the enlargement of previously narrow band of desert in sub-Saharan Arica (in which Neisseria meningitides infections traditionally occur), as drought spread to involve Uganda and Tanzania.

But if we know this for several years, what’s been missing? Has the communication been effectively delivered so far? Are data scientists passing their message through? This seems to be an emerging problem now, regardless of being in the literature for more than 20 years.

In Public Health we’re used to think about prevention and the cause of the cause. Are we engaged enough in preventing all these health impacting events from happening in the first place, as we’re mounting evidence that climate change is the cause of the cause?

During this session we were also all challenged to lead the cause, using our system thinking, data analysis skills and with an eye on equity. We were urged to change the way we look at modern healthcare with a new scope on reducing carbon foot printing while maintaining efficiency, quality of care for patients and reducing the costs associated with it. It’s up to Public Health to decarbonize the way medicine is done. It’s up to us.

This Blog was written by Young Gasteiner Guilherme Gonçalves Duarte.

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