Top Climate-Related Epidemiological Shifts In 2023

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by Eric Burdon
Image of scientist holding Petri dish and examining cultures
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While climate disruption is affecting the environmental health and well being of the planet, it also contributes to the overall unhealthiness of human beings. Climate change is responsible for making hundreds of diseases that much harder to manage, setting aside the fact that it has also shifted the environment and how we live.

Epidemiological studies are bolstering this, having established how adverse environmental exposures are directly linked to an array of health endpoints. Just the extremes in temperature pose significant risks to quality of life and risk factors in many vulnerable communities throughout different countries. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2019 ranked temperature variations as a major new risk factor in terms of epidemiological burden.

No doubt, as the epidemiology shows, public health will be getting worse, but how exactly? Knowing some of the trends to be looking at over the next several months this year will help you better evaluate what kind of threats we’re bound to be dealing with.

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Heart & Lung Diseases

Cardiovascular diseases are still having a large global impact. Between worn-down health care systems as a result of COVID, there are expected to be more issues in the upcoming months. What’s also worth pointing out is these can also develop into stroke-related problems as well as ischemic heart disease, two of the leading causes of human mortality.

Heart problems can be mitigated by controlling risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, and air pollution, which as Nature points out is the leading environmental cardiovascular risk factor. In short, inhaling airborne fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution directly affects cardiovascular disease and mortality.

The link to lung diseases is more direct. Globally, 2.4 billion people are exposed, indoors, to dangerous levels. of air pollution. Residential cooking methods are the subject of focus, and any effort to implement regulations whereby access to cleaner, more energy-efficient methods of household heating and incineration become commonplace are the 'low hanging fruit' of the public health and lung disease prevention debate. 

Environmental Health Risk Factors

Perhaps though, air pollution is the most attractive challenge since it is a highly visible example of climate disruption. Indeed, efforts to reduce air pollution are underway by multiple companies. As we have seen, the data collection is stark, and several studies have noticed how even fine particulate matter shifts can cause heart and lung problems and death.

The simplest mitigation approach is a familiar one, wearing masks in public spaces. However, with the loosening of COVID-19 requirements (masks and social distancing), many people are choosing to ditch the masks. This has resulted in a surge in cases of various diseases, such as flu and common colds. However, it also resulted in a spike in other respiratory viruses circulating.

Even with mask mandates removed, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that masks do work in preventing the spread of respiratory diseases, and the marked absence of seasonal flus during 2020-21 in particular pointed to the efficacy of mask use as a general management and prevention strategy. 

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Stronger Public Health Systems

All around the world, the global pandemic showed how the effectiveness of health care systems buckled under pressure. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) current total, over three quarters of a billion people caught COVID-19, with almost 7 million identified deaths.

In Canada, this alone revealed that the country's health care system, a source of national pride and identity, isn’t as robust as people think. However, change is on the way. That article alone proposed new additions and changes to the current Canadian health care system.

Furthermore, other countries are ramping up healthcare efforts, with many investing significantly more into their respective systems, underlined by a 40% global healthcare spend increase between 2018-2022.

Aging Population Needs

Globally, the population over 60 will increase over the coming years, with the WHO estimating 1 out of 6 people will be aged 60 or more. With that comes a wide variety of health and mental issues. On the mental side, there are cases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and dementia. From a general public health standpoint, there is a general overall decline in healthy indicators.

Of course, it’s important to look after younger generations, especially children, who may be dealing with long COVID, measles, and other diseases in addition to the as yet unknown effects of an enforced pandemic period of remote working and drastically reduced social interaction. However, it’s also prudent to have systems in place to address the aging demographic as well. This will be most important in less developed countries with surging youth populations taking the spotlight in the coming decade. 

The aging populations are living longer, yes, but strategies must also provide due consideration to their greater susceptibility to those non-optimal temperature spikes we are experiencing due to climate disruption.

Takeaway

This is all just scratching the surface of the connection between environmental health and public health. The examples of environmental exposures leading to shifts in quality of life expectation, new epidemiological pathways, and the exacerbation of existing disease impact are too great to list, and honestly too unknown. 

As the research builds we must take a step back from the planetary diagnosis of worsened public health and understand the importance of this point: we are in a closed system, so the changes we make to that system will, eventually, exert effects in the form of change that we are not fully adapted to. 

There are 'silver linings' in the sense that climate change has become so visible now that the linkage between it and our own personal health is incontrovertible. A global pandemic, whether initially a result of zoonotic transfer due to environmental pressures caused by humans, has provided huge learnings for disease prevention, public health management, and the critical importance of shared research and access.

If we accept that what we are doing to our planetary system is directly, adversely affecting us, then we have a solid platform on which to build progressive policy and economics based on health, access, and human rights. If we do not, then the epidemiological consequences of climate change may well prove more deadly than anything. 

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