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Stanford University School of Medicine

The effects of climate change on human health – and what to do about them

Every week it's something new. Last week, the BBC ran a story about an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia, the result, researchers believe, of an old reindeer carcass released by melting permafrost. The week before, ArsTechnica had a feature article associating a new kind of kidney disease with exposure to chronic heat and dehydration, common in those who labor in agricultural fields.

Climate change is causing major changes all around us that are affecting human health. We've been seeing bits and pieces of the story for years. But experts are realizing it's time to address the impacts of climate change on human health comprehensively and directly.

In a recent Inside Stanford Medicine article, I wrote about a Stanford report that describes the health problems and how to begin to tackle them. The problems include the direct effects of heat and drought on humans and our crops and animals, the spread of disease, and the loss of food supplies through the inundation of agricultural lands by rising seas and flooding and the demolition of marine food chains.

As I explained in the article:

The consequences of shattered food supplies spread outward, causing economic privation, social upheaval, food shortages and the displacement and forced migration of millions. These in turn lead to violence, trauma and physical and mental health disability.

For example, an extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 -- which experts believe was due to climate change -- caused massive crop failures, which, in turn, triggered the migration of 1.5 million people from farms to cities. Such displacement played a role in the subsequent uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, experts have argued.

Recognizing the problem is only the first step in defining the increasing role of health care systems in reducing the health effects of climate change:

The health care community already recognizes that tracking, studying and addressing the health impacts of climate change are critically important to strengthening the resilience of societies around the world.

Many institutions have begun integrated programs to consolidate what is known and what questions need to be answered. For example, The Lancet, a medical journal, has instituted an international research collaboration called "Lancet Countdown: Tracking progress on health and climate change."

...Hospitals and health care systems have some specific challenges to tackle, according to the Stanford report. "When a crisis such as a deadly heat wave or a hurricane occurs in a community, two things happen," said Walsh. "First of all, it puts stress on the health care system when the system needs to be able to respond quickly and effectively. But secondly, it's the place that people turn to. It can be a kind of resource. It's a 24/7 organization that is still there and still running when everything else is uncertain."

"Hospitals can be a kind of beacon in a community, a place people can turn to," she added.

The solutions are only beginning to take shape, and implementing them is still to come.

Previously: Model predicts best temperature for mosquito-borne disease transmissionClimate change and health: A snapshot from Stanford Health PolicyAs the climate heats up, earlier influenza seasons may become more common
Map, which depicts an estimate of number of days that various parts of U.S. can expect temperatures topping 100 degrees by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase unabated, by U.S. Global Change Research Program

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