Climate Change & Health - Everyone's Business

Dr Anthony Renshaw, Medical Director, Medical Services Northern Europe

13 December 2019

Our climate is changing. Many of the companies I’ve advised over the years are now focusing activities on bringing about societal change, and the environment features increasingly prominently in this. But what impact on health will these same planetary changes exert?

Years ago when I worked in the Pacific our medical team would see outbreaks of a disease called chikungunya, which causes fevers and joint pains. It was unsurprising to see it on a hot and humid tropical island. It had been well described in these settings ever since its first beginnings in Tanzania (chikungunya means ‘that which bends up’ in the local Makonde language). What I did not expect to see when I came back to Europe in 2017 was an outbreak of the same disease in France - the increasing temperatures enhancing the mosquito’s ability to breed.


Only this week it was reported that a lady returning to Australia had died of West Nile fever, a disease she contracted on a European holiday: a rare disease, admittedly, but one where a hotter climate has almost certainly allowed it to spread beyond its usual habitat. Malaria, which kills many hundreds of thousands a year, is also predicted to expand its reach; mosquitos that spread the disease may be able to survive at higher altitudes than ever before.

In recent years the El Niño weather system is thought to have contributed to thousands of cases of Rift Valley fever in East Africa. Lyme disease, spread by ticks, is popping up in more northerly locations, at higher elevations. Dengue fever has extended its reach. But it’s not only patterns of vector-borne disease that are changing. Natural disasters are increasing as weather patterns evolve.

These have a public health impact. Heatwaves bring not just drought, heat stress and dehydration. Cases of Salmonella rise too. Obesity rates rose in the years following Fukushima, the fear of residual nuclear activity in the community leading to locals spending less time outside exercising. After Hurricane Sandy, mental illness increased: mass population upheaval had led to changes in social supports. 

So what can organisations do about all of this? Realising there is an issue is the first step. Accepting that business does have a role to play is the second. Travelling employees demand access to timely health information and support. But many examples also exist of business collaborating actively with government, health partners or the third sector to provide resources and expertise in the realm of global health security.

Companies might help local communities by delivering dengue fever education, or have systems in place to support outbreak management on their projects. They may support local malaria programming, or enhance the capacity of their host countries to deal with community health. In the era of systems leadership, only by working together will we deal with climate’s effect on health head-on.

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