Thinking about climate change effects, we often picture disastrous environmental consequences, threats to iconic species, as well as necessary changes in our way of life and economy. But it has, up until now, often been neglected that climate change costs can go way beyond that and undermine the system that support our healthcare and our very survival.
The Australian Medical Association had since 2004 warned for the health effects of climate change and called for it to become not only an environmental but also a public health priority. The Australian Government eventually heard their call as Climate Change Minister, Senator Penny Wong, announced on January 27, 2009 the launch of a new AU$ 10 million research project on climate change health effects, collaboratively led by the Australian National University and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. (Source: SMH 27/01/09)
The National Adaptation Research Plan for Human Health and Climate Change, which sets out Australia’s research priorities for the next five years, highlights possible health effects of climate change. Some impacts will occur via direct-acting pathways, such as injuries or death caused by extreme climate events like floods, heat waves or bushfires. Yet many others are likely to occur through climatic influence on ecological, biological and social systems. This includes, for example, altered food production, respiratory and water born diseases, and the recrudescence of arboviruses transmitted by mosquitoes. Climate change could therefore alter the redistribution of diseases and see the emergence of new ones. Senator Wong agreed that:
“By 2020, for example, the number of heat-related deaths in our capital cities is projected to double to about 2300 a year. We are likely to see more food-safety related illness and dengue fever is likely to spread southwards.” (Source: Media Release, Department for the Environment)
Research will focus on physical and mental health issues linked to heat, extreme weather, insect-borne diseases and food safety.
It is the first time the National Health and Medical Research Council has listed climate change in its funding guidelines, illustrating a shift to a more global and interdisciplinary approach to climate change adaptation strategies in the country.
But identifying new health threats will not be enough, the Government will have to make sure that trained health professionals and adapted healthcare facilities will be available to face future acute health demands.