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Climate change: a public health emergency

Over previous decades, we have experienced incredible scientific and medical advances, including the creation of vaccines for many of the world’s diseases. However, climate change is fuelling the spread of several infectious diseases while aggravating many other health issues. Increasing demand coupled with unprepared health systems is creating a public health emergency. We have had a measles vaccine since 1963, however, cases spiked in the first couple of months in 2022 by 79%. Climate change is not just an environmental emergency but also a public health one too. Drivers of climate change are also driving the transmission of disease including inequality and urbanisation. Existing pathogens are remerging, and new pathogens are presenting novel complications.

COVID-19 stressed our unpreparedness for a world pandemic and we are still recovering. We risk another health crisis that we are equally unprepared for due to climate change unless we make significant progress in securing universal, affordable, high-quality healthcare. Climate change exacerbates existing diseases while emerging new ones. It has been discovered that TB is a climate-sensitive disease, weather changes affect transmission – for example, population displacement due to extreme weather events increases infection rates. A warmer climate favours the spread of malaria-bearing mosquitoes, potentially leading to further deaths from this disease.

The World Health Organisation expects an additional 250,000 deaths from malaria, heat stress, malnutrition, and diarrhoea alone each year between 2030 and 2050 because of climate change. Vulnerability factors will be exacerbated by climate change, such as socioeconomic factors and geographic factors. Unless we limit global warming, issues including food security and air quality will be further negatively impacted. Health systems will have to deal with the consequences and unless we have the capacity in a resilient system, we will not be able to cope.

Several climate-sensitive health risks have been highlighted, from heat-related illnesses to respiratory illnesses, and mental health issues to zoonoses. These will all impact healthcare facilities and affect health systems. Improved access to sanitation and healthcare alongside medical advances have significantly reduced global mortality and morbidity of infectious diseases. Furthermore, the speed that the vaccine was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic proves the capabilities of modern science.

However, as with many vaccines and treatments, access is often unequal, and many people globally do not have access to high-quality healthcare. Populations in the Global South battle many diseases with neglected healthcare and health systems, and it is these populations that are most at risk from climate change-related health crises. The WHO and World Bank stated before the pandemic that at least half the world’s population lacks access to essential healthcare services. Furthermore, many of those without access to basic health also do not have access to many other services.

The future of healthcare needs to be sustainable and resilient to face existing and future challenges. Disparities between countries need to be addressed to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, high-quality healthcare. To tackle global risks, collaboration is required on a global scale to build resilience. We need to identify and scale up new solutions rather than relying on past solutions. System change, collaboration, and innovation are our best chances of avoiding and managing health crises.

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