CDC Holds First-Ever “Grand Rounds” Focused on Climate Change and Health
Evidence of climate change grows stronger every day – and the higher temperatures and extreme weather we’re seeing pose an increasing threat to our national health. In yesterday’s Public Health Grand Rounds webcast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explored the impacts of climate change and the strategies being used to confront those challenges.
Assessing Changes in Climate
Dr. George Luber discussed the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment Report, which summarizes the impacts of climate change on various sectors of the U.S., including public health. The report showed a number of trends: rising temperatures, an increase in heavy rain, more frequent extreme weather events like heat waves and floods, and rising sea levels. Dr. Luber stressed the importance of understanding the local nature of impacts – for example, the Great Lakes area had one of the greatest increases in overall temperature, while Alabama actually experienced a cooling trend.
Connecting the dots between climate change and health
Health impacts make climate change personal – in fact, in a survey by George Mason University and the National Medical Association, 61 percent of physicians said their patients had been affected by climate change. Dr. Kim Knowlton described the many facets of this new public health challenge. Though the impacts are serious, she encouraged us to see the positive effects climate solutions can have – and the earlier we act, the greater the benefits.
Climate change amplifies existing health threats. Rising temperatures can increase pollution, which worsens asthma. Longer warm seasons can exacerbate airborne allergies. Wildfires can affect air quality hundreds of miles away, while heavy precipitation increases exposure to water-borne diseases and can damage the quality of water supplies.
Certain populations are more affected by climate change. Children, the poor, and the elderly are more likely to suffer climate-related health impacts. The elderly are especially vulnerable to air pollution and extreme heat, while poor communities often live in dense urban areas that retain more heat than nearby rural areas.
As threats increase, the ability to adapt may be limited. This is especially true in areas that suffer repeated climate impacts.
Climate solutions offer both long- and short-term co-benefits. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels, for example, promotes better health by immediately improving air quality and encouraging more outdoor activities, as well as creating fewer carbon emissions.
The influence of climate on infectious diseases
Climate change can increase the distribution and abundance of certain pathogens. Dr. C. Ben Beard presented two case studies: the serious outbreak of West Nile virus in Texas in 2012, and the recent spread of Lyme disease in the northeastern United States. Both were the result of warmer temperatures and, in some cases, more rainfall.
Dr. Beard outlined what he feels is the optimum response to this threat: public health surveillance (establishing baselines and tracking trends), preparedness (better detection and response capabilities), and research (developing predictive models).
Helping cities and states respond
Understanding the impacts of climate change is vital, but it’s also important to know what’s being done about it. Dr. Luber described how CDC’s Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative is helping 16 states and two cities develop tools and strategies to deal with climate impacts. The program uses a five-step framework, known as BRACE (Building Resilience Against Climate Effects). The steps are:
1. Forecast climate impacts and vulnerabilities
2. Project the additional burden of health outcomes
3. Assess the most suitable public health interventions
4. Develop and implement an adaptation plan
5. Evaluate the effectiveness and quality of the processes used
Since impacts are often location-specific, this framework allows states and communities to be proactive in preparing for the most likely threats to their areas.
CDC’s presentation illustrated that health organizations are aware of the impacts of climate change, and committed to a wide variety of solutions. But greater climate literacy is needed throughout the health sector in order to equip health professionals to leverage their credibility as influential messengers on the issue. Academics, researchers, and public health professionals can all participate in raising awareness and inspiring action on climate preparations and solutions.
ecoAmerica’s new Climate for Health program empowers health leaders to address the challenges of climate change and build support for solutions. Find out more at momentus.org.