Doctors, healthcare workers sound alarm over health risks of climate change

3 June, 2021: Doctors and health workers, some clad in white coats and wielding placards, walked to the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva on Saturday to demand that health authorities and governments should focus on environmental change to turn avert a global health emergency.

Their calls for immediate action included focus on preventative health care with education programs in schools and the wider community, more fair and equitable access to health care facilities, diminishing the carbon impact of medical services, and stricter control of industries to guarantee clean water and air.

Underscoring progressive nature of their platform, the protesters likewise called for the creation of citizen assemblies to direct strategic health decisions. Their requests were recorded in an petition, endorsed by more than 1,200 prominent doctors and medical care workers from around the world.

WHO boss Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who invited the protesters, said that while “the pandemic will end, there is no vaccine for environmental change”. He later tweeted that health care and environmental change were “inseparably entwined” and that the WHO might be “standing in solidarity and urging global action” with the demonstrators.

Undoubtedly, the WHO and the renowned Lancet clinical journal have pronounced environmental change the greatest danger to worldwide healthcare in the 21st century, an assertion made even before the Covid-19 crisis.

Front line health workers and researchers may have been sounding the alarm on environmental change for quite a long time, however, it is only as of late that more voices have ventured up to lead rallies, sign petitions and publish studies with the same fierce urgency as grassroots activists.

Professor Valerie D’Acremont, an infectious disease specialist and global health specialist at Lausanne University Hospital, is among those standing up.

D’Acremont, who mostly splits her work among Africa and Europe, said that dissatisfaction has driven her towards more health advocacy work since “governments and the general population have neglected to comprehend the solid connections between environmental change and biodiversity loss and health”.

She said governments need to take action and that a large number of us don’t see the sense in doing our jobs because we are exhausted with being consistently behind, planning for the future health crisis as opposed to following up on the underlying drivers of the issues. Coronavirus is one manifestation of this issue.

An increase in dehydration and heat strokes, and floods that spread cholera, are genuine consequences if nations forge ahead in their present directions. Then there are the infections not seen before in Europe, like Dengue fever, that have arrived in France, Spain, and Croatia. Instances of Zika have likewise been found in southern Europe.

Others, for example, tick-borne encephalitis and the West Nile infection, which are now present in the United States are also a cause for concern.

“A few infections like cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses will increase more strongly but its harder for people to make the link to climate change because they already exist” D’Acremont said.

D’Acremont is a member of Doctors for Extinction Rebellion (Swiss section), the gathering behind Saturday’s demonstration. It arose as a branch of Extinction Rebellion, a natural activism group that acquired reputation in the UK in April 2019 for tremendously disruptive shows that carried downtown London to a halt and got under the skin of thousands of commuters caught in the chaos. English Prime Minister Boris Johnson was provoked to say something, excusing the environmental change dissidents “crusties” who live in “hemp-smelling bivouacs”.

But, the British PM’s exaggeration of environment activists came up short: a center group of front-line workers and doctors branched out to make Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, keeping the name and blending environment activism with general public health.

The gathering has now separated itself from its more extreme beginnings and is among a few gatherings attracting activists from the clinical field. While some should think about the act of medication and social activism to be contradictory, D’Acremont said there was at that point a movement among health care workers to stand up over breaks in the health system, however she agrees environment activism among specialists is a novel concept.

“Some public health experts are already saying we can’t proceed down this path. The human side of medication is getting lost on the grounds that the healthcare system isn’t permitting us to do preventative medication. The framework needs to adjust and environmental change is making this point.”

Dr. Rita Issa, a London-based general practitioner, scholar and co founder of Doctors for Extinction Rebellion in the UK, says that she felt an “ethical obligation” as a specialist to speak up about environmental change. She said she is now seeing a disturbing number of patients, including kids, in her facility who experience the ill effects of an assortment of medical issues connected to environmental change.

“Patients come in with a host of factors that effect their well being, from the food they eat, the houses they live in and the air they breathe,” Dr. Issa said. “I’m seeing youngsters with 10% diminished lung capacity. If we are to truly address their well being we need to handle the air they breathe. If we would prefer not to treat kids with deteriorating lung capacity and heatstroke, we need to make a move now.”

Dr. Issa’s discoveries in her clinical practice are upheld by scientific data.

Results from an study distributed Monday in the diary Nature Climate Change showed that in excess of 33% of heat related deaths all throughout the planet from 1991 to 2018 were the aftereffect of human-incited an Earth-wide temperature boost. In excess of 43 nations in the study recorded warmth levels higher than the ideal temperature for human well being.

Researchers also tracked down that the health effects of environmental change already being felt. Despite of Covid-19 lock-downs, which saw a worldwide fall in contamination levels a year ago, worldwide temperatures actually transcended pre-industrial levels, edging near the 1.5°C maximum benchmark set by the world’s countries.

The shock of the Covid-19 pandemic illustrated that there is a public health issue that “doesn’t respect national boundaries, or care if you’re rich or poor”, said Dr. Issa, adding that she believed the crisis helped the health aspect of climate change break into the mainstream. While she understands that activism is not for all doctors, Dr. Issa believes that “medicine is inherently political”.

Although active in signing petitions urging climate change action, Professor Antoine Flahault dismisses any suggestion that he is an activist.

Speaking from the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, where he is the director, Flahault said he has been warning about the health impacts of climate change as part of his everyday clinical observations as a doctor and researcher.

As pandemic raged, data substantiated direct links between global air pollution levels and outbreaks of Covid-19, with spikes observed where outbreaks were active, especially in cities in India as well as Paris and London. And though the link between reducing air pollution and improving the climate situation is an obvious one, he sees changes to how healthcare is delivered as a less-talked-about but crucial aspect of managing climate change.

Like D’Acremont, he wants to see reforms to help meet the challenges by rethinking the traditionally top-down approach of the health system.

“We need to include the citizen and patients in their own care,” he said. “We also have to try to educate the public that more is less and of the benefits of parsimony by abstaining from too many exploratory tests and treatments. It’s not just the cost to the social security system and to patients, it’s also the carbon footprint of all these procedures and how we administer health care.”

If he can convey just one message to global leaders in front of the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow in November, Flahault hopes to clarify that “there can be no healthy lives without a healthy planet”.

It’s a warning likely to reverberate all the more intensely this week, at any rate in France, where the mercury is expected to rise as a heatwave sweeps the nation over, a pattern found lately that has frequently been marked by heat-related diseases and fatalities.

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