September 19, 2017
2 min read

Climate crisis expected to contribute to global disease burden

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Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH
Jonathan Patz

CHICAGO — Asthma, malaria and cholera, among other chronic and acute conditions, are expected to rise in prevalence as a result of climate change, according to a recent presentation held at the AAP 2017 National Conference & Exhibition.

The current use of fossil fuel combustion, a significant factor contributing to this climate change, causes 3.7 million deaths annually from urban, outdoor exposures and 4.3 million deaths per year from indoor exposures such as coal cookstoves.

“I want to remind everyone that this is not just global warming,” Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, professor and John P. Holton Chair of Health and the Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in his presentation. “I do not even call it ‘climate change’ — it is a global climate crisis, and it involves temperatures, sea levels due to thermoexpansion of salt water and the melting of land-based glaciers. It also includes precipitation and its extremes: not enough precipitation with an overly dry environment or too much precipitation with contamination and flooding.”

According to a WHO report, climate change is expected to greatly impact children’s health, with 88% of climate-related disease affecting children aged younger than 5 years. Patz claims that with rising temperatures comes the threat of increased insect-borne diseases, including Zika and dengue.

“The capacity for mosquitos to transmit Zika and dengue is the highest it has been in the last 60 years,” Patz said. “The climatic conditions have made Zika transmission extremely suitable. Even though climate is not the main reason for Zika, it is a majorly enabling factor.”

A significant concern for future climate change is the role in which precipitation plays in spreading disease. According to research conducted by Patz and colleagues, the city of Chicago is projected to experience an increase of combined sewage overflow of over 100% by 2050. This type of sewage overflow has enabled the spread of Escherichia coli up to 20,000 E. coli CFU/100 mL in the city of Milwaukee.

Patz notes that although these are serious concerns, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the harm caused by climate change.

“The good news is that we are at a different time in our recognition that climate change is real, it’s dangerous and the world needs to come together and do something about it,” he said.

One way in which countries can prevent further climate change is through the use of clean energy, a practice that would cost less than $30 per 1 ton of carbon dioxide removed from the air, yet save $200 in health care costs, Patz said. This practice proved beneficial in the 1996 Summer Olympics held in Atlanta, where morning traffic decreased 23%, peak ozone levels decreased 28%, and pediatric asthma-related ED visits decreased 42%.

“It is extremely important to communicate [to policymakers] that reducing carbon dioxide can save money in the long-term. It is enormous what the health benefits will be, especially in more polluted countries,” Patz said. “Pediatricians are essential for this communication [on the health implications of climate change]. Action on climate change is an action on health.” – by Katherine Bortz


Patz J. P3077. The heat is on: Why climate change advocacy is essential to child health. Presented at: 2017 AAP National Conference & Exhibition; Sept. 16-19; Chicago.

Disclosure: Patz reports no financial disclosures.