Why Climate Change Is Worsening Public Health Problems

Around the world, the health care debate often revolves around access.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, recently announced: “All roads lead to universal health coverage.” Discussions for how to translate this vision into a road map for action is central to the agenda of the WHO’s executive board meeting this week in Geneva.

Yet focusing on access is not enough. The imperative for access must be paired with a frank acknowledgment that climate change is making communities around the world more vulnerable to ill health. A 2017 commission of The Lancet, a leading health research journal, tracked the effects of climate change on health and found evidence of harms “far worse that previously understood.”

Even as we move to close the access gap, a string of natural disasters in late 2017, including successive hurricanes and widespread forest fires, threaten to widen the vulnerability gap.

As a global health professional (Sosin) and a cultural anthropologist (Kivland), we have witnessed how the global exchange of health technology, expertise and aid has contributed to dramatic gains in the delivery of health care in Haiti and other settings, especially around infectious diseases. Yet climate change threatens to undermine the health gains in vulnerable communities across the globe.

As firsthand witnesses to sharp health disparities globally, we argue that world leaders need to insist that any health care strategy must address the social and environmental vulnerabilities driving poor health in the first place.

The Health Burden of Climate Change

Climate scientists argue that global warming is exacerbating extreme weather events. And natural disasters are often the source of health crises, particularly in fragile settings. Consider the case of Puerto Rico. The official death toll of the storm was estimated at 64; however, later reports have estimated that the disruption of health care services contributed to upwards of 1,052 deaths on the…

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