How Climate Change Is Cranking The Heat On Public Health Crises

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Giraldo Carratala, a Miami-Dade County mosquito control inspector, uses a fogger to spray pesticide to kill mosquitoes on April 20, 2016, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Droughts, floods and heat waves are becoming more common in various parts of the world thanks to climate change.

Beyond the immediate devastation those natural disasters can cause, experts say they’re also exacerbating public health problems, from promoting the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika to sowing famine and malnutrition.

As part of our weeklong look at climate change, Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with Dr. Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about the public health impacts of global warming.

Interview Highlights: Dr. Jonathan Patz

On climate change’s impact on public health

“One of the reasons that I’ve actually picked this for my lifetime study over the last 20 years because I think that climate change poses about the largest health impact that there can be. When you think about the multiple passways through which climate affects our health, from heat waves, ground level air pollution, [to] ground level smog pollution, which…[is] very temperature sensitive. And them some of them more complicated infectious diseases, any disease carried by mosquitoes, or ticks — these cold blooded insects are very sensitive to just small changes in temperature and humidity. So a number of Vector-borne diseases — malaria, dengue fever — we even think Zika virus because it’s so closely related to dengue and many other mosquito-borne diseases.

And remember climate change is not just warming, it’s also extremes of the water cycle — more flooding and more drought. Big on our priority list is the effect on crops and nutrition. And there’re studies that showing that we could double the number of people at risk of malnutrition by mid century because of the extreme temperatures. If you have the other extreme of the water cycles, which is flooding, lots of explore to contaminated water, and there’s been studies out of the world health organization showing that at least a quarter of million people are being affected by current climate change and that’s a low estimate because that’s just looking at a couple of diseases — malaria, malnutrition and diarrhoeal disease.”

On the effects of drought

“The biggest concern with drought is food security and especially places that are growing crops that are in a narrow envelop of temperature and humidity, and if you go above that envelop and temperature, these crops will decline. And according to the U.N., the models project that many of the crops will be decreasing, especially in sensitive areas where you already have problems, like in Africa and Central America. That’s one concern with drought.”

On instances where climate change is good for health

“There are a few instances where there’re winners and losers. And for example, in the former Soviet Union, an increase seasons for crops could be one benefit. There are some diseases that gets too hot, like Rocky Mountain spotted fever in these southeast region of the United States, the model shows that maybe it gets too hot for that tick and some disease will decrease.

But according to several series of the reports coming out the United Nations’s intergovernmental panel and climate change — I’ve been part of that for about 15 years — we looked at all over these health issues and on balance, the negative effects far out way the positive effects.”

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Dr. Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute and professor of health and the environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He tweets @jonathanpatz.

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