Climate change, according to the EPA, means that the Earth is warming. In fact, the average temperature has risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century. It is expected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the next hundred years. Why should we care and as a physician, what does this mean to our health?
This is an important topic. So important, in fact, that the American College of Physicians (ACP) has written a position paper on this matter. The rising temperatures have led to changes in weather and climate. This means more floods, droughts, intense rain, and more frequent and severe heat waves.
Oceans are heating up and becoming more acidic and with glaciers melting, sea levels are rising. Many bacteria, insects, and other disease causing organisms thrive in these environments. You see, insects are effective carriers and vehicles for spreading disease to large populations. The Zika virus, Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, Ehrlichiosis, and the list goes on.
In addition, water is at risk of becoming contaminated and the air is becoming more polluted and full of allergens, which lead to significant health hazards from infectious disease to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.
The health effects are already being felt by all of us, especially physicians. The number of emphysema exacerbations, sinusitis, allergies, asthma flares, and respiratory failure from these pathologies is increasing in frequency and severity. The number of strokes and heart attacks in young and healthy individuals are increasing - in fact, I tweeted a NY Times article a few months ago that raised this concern.
I was in the doctors lounge last weekend and talking with a critical care friend of mine. As we sat there talking about our day, I asked him "how has the flu season been?" To this he responded, "we had worse years, but still lost a few." To us, the stories of healthy 18 year olds going on ECMO - life saving bypass machines- are not extraordinary. Unfortunately, it is all too common. In our experience, we have seen and heard of many young healthy folks pass away from things like the flu or an asthma flare triggered by allergies. Cases of infectious disease from contaminated water or food poisoning are also common. Ultimately, cases that come from contaminated food and water that should have been "ancient" are present and claim many lives today.
It is hard to convince the general public about the importance of climate change and it's effect on all of us. Thus, we write position papers, use TV, radio, and journals to get the word out. But like any other health issue, as much as physicians long for conversations like this to take place before any crisis happens, it almost always ends up being at the bedside surrounded by concerned family members.
The issue of climate change transcends countries, race, nationalities, or gender. This is a human issue. It's a international issue that must be taken seriously by each of us. Like many health challenges and pathologies, there are solutions and steps we can take today to prevent the development of global disease and fatalities. Please read the ACP position paper published yesterday and also visit www.epa.gov to learn more about how you can help.
"He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all."