Climate Change and Public Health Issues: Analytical Essay

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1. Introduction

It is understood that one of the most significant public health issues of the next 10 years will be climate change and the role public health practitioners has become critical in addressing these very significant public health issues(1). One of the countries that is considered to be facing the greatest impact of climate change is South Africa, this is in the form of increased temperatures, drought, rising sea levels and floods (2). Although climate change is not solely a health issue as it is also an environmental and social issue, it needs to be addressed as quickly and effectively as possible to reduce its impact on the country(2). Climate change influences various accepts of life and its effects are felt typically by the most vulnerable populations in the country.

Climate change is primarily caused by the emission of gases such as carbon dioxide(CO2 ), carbon monoxide(CO), methane(CH4) and other pollutants into the environment and this is mainly due to the economic needs of the country and is caused by humans (3). Drinking water, fresh air, adequate food and proper housing are all impacted by climate change and they are all necessities for healthy living (3). The impact on health by climate change is either direct or indirect with both being equally disturbing.

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In my discussion to follow I will describe the impact of climate change on the health sector and how we can work together to curb the impact. The focus of my discussion will be on the effects of climate change on the health both directly and indirectly in South Africa and the role of health care practioners to address the issue and threats that climate change places on the people of South Africa and how we can manage these effectively.

2. Direct effects of climate change

One of the direct effects of climate change is the changes in the weather being both in the form of temperature rise and extreme weather patterns in South Africa and rising sea levels. it was found that there has been three times the number of natural disasters worldwide in the last 10 years compared to the 1960, this analysis was done by a reinsurance company (4) It is predicted that the temperature increase will be at last 4°C higher in Southern Africa in comparison to the rest of the world at the end of the century (5).

In South Africa, there is already an increase noted in the minimum and maximum temperatures recorded over the past few years. When the body temperature rises to above 38.0°C it can cause heat fatigue in humans and an increase in temperature can also lead to an increase in headaches and nausea (3). It is also noted that the probability of heatwave in South Africa is 3.5 times higher to occur then in the 1988 to the 2000 period (5). From analysis over 17 years in South Africa it is noted that 3.4% of mortality is temperature related and this is either by extremely low or high temperatures (6). Studies from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg have shown that for an increase in temperature by 1°C that the death rate increases by 1% and for those over 65 years of age the death rate increases by 2% (5). By those statistics we see that the older are at greater risk of death as result of climate change. Another concern for health practitioners to address is pregnant women, as the increase in temperature will have added risks to the already major health concern of pregnant woman mortality(5).

The increase in temperature is also of concern for those that work outdoors, as an increase in temperature can have many extreme effects on them, these can include sunburn, exhaustion and reduced productivity(5). The impact of temperature on domestic housing also needs to be investigated as the current low-cost housing homes in South Africa are built of materials that can trap heat into the houses and make the indoor temperatures at least 4-5°C higher than the temperature outside(5). Those that live-in low-cost housing are the poorer citizens who will now be faced with a greater risk of heat exhaustion. Although one may believe that climate change is only an increase in temperature, the risk of flood and the possibility of many diseases and ultimately death of the citizens of South Africa(5).

3.2 Indirect impacts of climate change

The indirect impacts of climate change include infectious and cardiovascular disease and mental health conditions (3). The change in climatic conditions may lead to many waters borne diseases that will cause major issues in the public health sector. Diarrhoea, malaria, dysentery and many more conditions will become more prevalent in the years to come. Studies have shown that the rise in temperatures as changes in rain patterns has caused an increase in the number of malaria cases in the Limpopo Province in South Africa (5).Studies have also shown that climate change will allow for the survival of the malaria vector Anopheles arabiensis, in South Africa however this will not be the case for other countries in the African continent (6). The fact that the malaria vector will be able to survive in South Africa shows how serious the issue of climate change is in the country compared to our neighbouring African countries.

Not very long-ago South Africans were affected by the Listeriosis outbreak caused by Listeria monocytogenes, that seems to be a climate-sensitive (3). An increase in the temperature will lead to any more cases of Listeria in the future. The spread of listeriosis will become easier when there is an optimum environment for it to flourish. To decrease the spread of such diseases there needs to be more done by public health practioners to ensure that people are aware of the consequences of unhygienic practises in the workplace, more especially in the food industry. There needs to be regular testing and maintenance of equipment to ensure that no such outbreaks occur in the future.

According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) children face the biggest health burden from many environmental factors (7). This means that children will be the ones that face the largest problems due to climate change, although children are not the ones that contribute to climate as much as adults do. A study in children under five years of age in Cape Town showed that there is a 40% increase in the number of cases of diarrhoea with a 5°C increase in the minimum temperature (5).It is also noted that cities are more likely to be affected by climate change compared to rural areas due to more emissions in the urban areas compared to the rural areas and this is due to a greater carbon footprint in urban areas compared to rural (7).

The effects of climate change also has effects on the mental health of the people of South Africa (6). Climate change will lead to a worsening to the many strains that already face many citizens of the in the country. With climate change will come loss of homes, more poverty, increased spread of disease and this can lead to an increase in the number of depression and suicide cases in the country as people may find it difficult to deal with all that is happening around them. More should be done to ensure people are able to assess the early signs of depression and to help save the lives of those around them. Public health practioners will play a vital role in ensuring that many deaths can be avoided.

population shift due to the changes in land usage caused by different rainfall patterns and temperatures may lead to violence and more risk-taking behaviours and this can cause an increase in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases such as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) (5) . So as South Africa tries to control the already high number of infections and death due to HIV, it should be noted that climate change will lead to an increase in the number of infections, public health practioners will need to work on a way to curb the spread of the disease.

3. What can Public Health Practioners do to reduce the impact of climate change?

Public health practioners will need to clearly assess all the current climate change issues that we face and find ways to best manage them. If there is no response by the public health practioners then there will be a worsening of the current state off the country (5) . There needs to be constant surveillance of climate change and we need to be prepared to address these changes as we are faced by them. Studies will need to be conducted using the existing health data that is available and with data that emerges over the coming years. Analysis of the data collected will help to better understand and address the problems. Currently there are very few studies that have been conducted using the current health data that is available (6). The findings from these studies should be shared with the key policy makers to ensure that we are adequality prepared to face the future burden of climate change and its effect on health.

South African public health practioners should meet on a more regular basis with key stakeholders within the country and with international counterparts so we can discuss a way to better handle climate change and to ensure that possible solutions to climate change are deliberated. To manage the burden of climate change it will also require a huge financial input by the South African Government, one will have to debate whether South Africa has the economical ability to adequately deal with climate change. There will need to be proper planning and looking into the future to ensure we can deal with the impending threats.

The South African Governments National Climate Change Response white Paper states that the youth should be targeted in an effort to make a change with regard to climate change (8). The youth of the country are the best targets as it will be easier for them to understand climate change. The changes that are made by the youth will be seen years into the future and they will be able to pass it on to the future generations of the country. The use of media is also mentioned the government’s response and that should be implemented as using the media will be able to reach as many people as possible in different walks of life(8). Public health practioners should be able to include all the citizen of the country to ensure that something is done to curb climate change as we all have an input into the changes that are occurring around us.

4. Conclusion

Climate change is a huge problem that South Africans face, although many have no insight or knowledge of what is happening around them, the sad reality is that in the next decade life will no longer be the same for many. There needs to be more education from young citizens to the old to ensure that we all are able contribute to the fight against climate change. We will be faced with increased temperatures, raising sea levels, spread of disease and so much more. It is the role of the public health practioners to address this matter with urgency. It is also encouraging to know that South Africa was able to deal with a major issue like HIV in the way we have thus far. The communication and planning that was used by South Africa to deal with HIV should be used in the case of climate change as one could see the positive change that was made (6).

It is also pleasing to note that South Africa is the leading in research into climate change in South Africa and that there are many South African scientists that are involved in many global climate change discussions and are member of many bodies, one being the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (9). There is also large number of journal articles published by South African scientists which means there is hope for South Africa and its people. As we look towards the future we need many collaborations to enable South Africa to beat the effects of climate change and to reduce our carbon footprint to ensure that climate change becomes a thing of the past, if not for us than for the future generations of this country.


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