When Samantha Ahdoot, MD, FAAP, chair, Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action spoke, her comments were tinged with emotion.
Dr. Ahdoot, who is also a practicing pediatrician with Pediatric Associates of Alexandria, was part of a panel discussion entitled “Health, Healers, and Healthcare on a Warming Planet” during the proceedings trumpeting The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change on November 29th. Countdown is the result of a first-ever international research collaboration involving 27 leading research institutions, the United Nations, and various intergovernmental agencies, spearheaded by the journal and the American Public Health Association and “dedicated to tracking the world’s response to climate change.”
The 2018 report and companion US Brief, which focused on “extreme heat and its impact on labor productivity and the spread of disease,” were officially released on November 28. In summarizing how her practice has been affected by climate change, Dr. Ahdoot described the “new” clinical cases she is seeing.
“I care for the children who come home from vacation in Canada with Lyme disease,” she said, adding that Canada had been “a place where it used to be too cold for Lyme disease-carrying ticks to survive. As the [Countdown] report makes abundantly clear, climate change is an unprecedented threat to the health and welfare of every child in my state, this country, and the world.”
Indeed, among the findings highlighted in the Countdown report: Research has linked increasingly frequent global heatwaves with, not surprisingly, higher rates of heat stress and heatstroke, but also increased aggression and violence. Hotter temperatures may also play a role in the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria as well as declines in cognitive function, worsening mental health conditions, and increased suicides, the report suggests.
Higher air temperatures across the globe also likely augment the negative effects of air pollution, leading to higher incidences of respiratory diseases, among other health complications. As the report notes, the United States is now experiencing nearly 3 times as many heatwaves annually as it did in the 1960s, and these climate events are, on average, longer in duration than ever before.
However, heat is hardly the only issue related to climate change. Warming temperatures also result in a rise of more extreme weather events, the Countdownreport notes. In fact, since 1980, according to research highlighted therein, there has been a steady rise in billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the United States. In fact, in 2017, a record-tying 16 extreme weather events cost an estimated $313 billion in insured and uninsured losses (not including health-related costs).
So why should health care professionals wade into what is largely viewed as a contentious political issue, at least in the United States? Countdown is blunt: “A rapidly changing climate has dire implications for every aspect of human life, exposing vulnerable populations to extremes of weather, altering patterns of infectious disease and compromising food security, safe drinking water, and clean air.”
And keynote speaker at the November 29th event, held at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health in Washington, DC, Gina McCarthy, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency and currently, director, Center for Climate, Heath and the Global Environment, Harvard TH School of Public Health, described the Countdown report as “a rallying cry and an important reminder and opportunity to stop denying the science, look at what’s happening in the real world today, and start making investments in adaptation and reducing fossil fuels that are fueling climate change.”
The authors of the report also emphasize that “hospitals can lead America’s efforts to transform the energy system… by ensur[ing] that their own operations are powered by renewable energy in order to minimize harm from their activities.”
They added, “Healthcare should extend its commitment to ‘do no harm’ by divesting from the fossil fuel industry and investing in innovative solutions that will improve health now and for future generations.”
If nothing else, The Lancet Countdown report will likely foster much-needed discussion on climate change and its potential effects on human health. Whether that discussion will generate action remains to be seen.