Climate change poses ‘health crisis’
Unchecked climate change could mean mosquitoes carrying disease, a rise in respiratory illnesses and greater contamination of water sources. Dominic Harris investigates.
Disease-carrying mosquitoes could become common in the future as New Zealand faces a looming health crisis caused by climate change, a report warns.
Illnesses such as dengue fever could take hold in parts of the country, particularly the North Island, in little over two decades if climate change accelerates unchecked.
Scientists also predict a possible increase in respiratory diseases from more allergens in the air, greater exposure to cancer-causing UV radiation and a potential rise in infectious diseases caused by a changing environment.
Heat waves, storms and floods will have an ever-greater impact on rates of disease and death, and the report’s author, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), warned the effects on health from the changing environment will become a ‘‘major challenge’’ unless the country is prepared for what is to come.
Associate Health Minister Julie Anne Genter said the Government must build up the ‘‘capacity and capability’’ of the health sector to deal with climate change after what she said was years of neglect by the previous administration.
‘‘We need to make responding to climate change an urgent priority . . . across the health system to identify and prepare for the increase in risks.’’
ESR was asked by the Ministry of Health to analyse existing scientific literature on climate change and environmental health risks over the next 50 to 100 years so plans can be put in place to mitigate or adapt to them.
Climate change is most likely to worsen existing environmental health risks, including exposure to air irritants and pollutants, extreme weather events, exposure to – or a lack of – UV radiation and the potential for the emergence of insect-borne diseases.
The report suggested future gas emissions and how ready the Government, public and health sector are to adapt to climate change will have a major impact on the effect on health.
‘‘Adaptation options need to remain flexible and favour ‘noregret’ or ‘win-win’ strategies that yield benefits even in absence of climate change . . . There will be positive health benefits for everyone if appropriate mitigation and adaptation strategies are implemented sooner rather than later.’’
Health officials are already taking measures, including funding district health board units to detect and ensure exotic mosquitoes are not able to establish in New Zealand, ensuring aircraft coming into the country are properly disinfected and reviewing emergency plans over national health.
Genter said the report sent a ‘‘very clear message’’ that swift action to lessen the impacts of climate change is vital if a health crisis is to be averted, but also that there is a need to adapt to changes that are already inevitable.
‘‘We need our health system to be better prepared to deal with increased temperatures and more extreme weather events.’’
ESR will now advise the Government on what steps the health sector can take to adapt to climate change.
Scientists predict a possible increase in respiratory diseases from more allergens in the air, greater exposure to cancercausing UV radiation and a potential rise in infectious diseases caused by a changing environment.