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Climate change will have serious implications for public health in Australia resulting in increasing social and economic costs. McMichael, Woodruff & Hales studied how vulnerability to climate change related health problems depends on differences in geography, technological resources, governance and wealth. The Australian Greenhouse Office Risk and Vulnerability Report recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are particularly vulnerable to climate change related health impacts, such as vector- and food-borne disease and temperature-related illnesses.

Rises in ambient temperatures and changes to rainfall patterns will cause the following:

  • Increased health problems and death due to heat stress
  • Injury, trauma or death caused by extreme weather events
  • Greater incidence and extent of infectious disease
  • Increased pollution-related respiratory problems in urban areas

Heat stress
Heatwaves are a public health issue that has increased in severity and impact in the past decade. For example, the International Federation of Red Cross has reported that 2003 European heatwaves resulted in between 22,000 and 35,000 deaths. During this crisis, health systems in Europe were severely stretched coping with the increased incidence of heat stroke and heat related mortality, with the poor, very young and the elderly most affected. In France, 70 per cent of heatwave deaths are among those over 75 years of age. The United Nations estimates that globally, the number of older persons (60 years or over) will triple to almost 2 billion by 2050. The heatwave resulted in economic losses of over US $13 billion (ibid).

The table below from the International Federation of Red Cross depicts a breakdown of the deaths in Europe by country, with figures provided by the World Health Organisation and Earth Policy Institute.

Deaths from Europe's 2003 heat wave (heat stroke and excess mortality):
France 14,802 14,802
Germany - 7,000
Spain 59* 4,230
Italy 3,134 4,175
Portugal 2,106 1,316
England and Wales 2,045 2,045
Netherlands - 1,400
Belgium - 150
Total 22,124 35,118

*According to WHO, more than 6,000 excess deaths were informally reported during the heatwave in Spain, but only 59 were accepted as being caused by the heatwave.

In relative terms, if greenhouse emissions are not mitigated, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) estimate that by 2100 between 8,000 and 15,000 Australians could die every year from heat-related illnesses.[1]

Most heatwave deaths occur in people with pre-existing cardiovascular diseases, and people living in thermally inefficient housing in urban environments. This is exacerbated by the urban "heat-island" effect, discribed by McMichael, Woodruff & Hales as high thermal mass and low ventilation in inner urban environments, absorb and retain heat.

See also: Planning

Extreme weather events
Projections of frequent and extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, and tornadoes are of significant concern to the AMA and ACF. Annual rainfall is projected to decrease, however the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events is expected to increase in almost all Australian States and Territories. In a report commissioned by the Department of Health and Aging, by the year 2020, the flood risk of the whole country is predicted to increase by between 39% and 97%.

Secondary associated health effects of extreme weather events are displacement of large numbers of people as well as the interruption to key services and infrastructure. Internationally, a characteristic of extreme events is the increased transmission rate of infectious diseases. Whilst these are rarely seen in developed countries such as Australia, the AMA state they may become more of a problem if the frequency and magnitude of these events escalates.

AMA and ACF also report the a risk of mental health problems associated with exposure to extreme weather events with psychological ramifications of surviving an extreme event significant and long lasting. McMichael, Woodruff & Hales note exacerbating vulnerability to flood risks from the trend in high-income countries for people to move to the coast. Given that 80% of the population lives within 50 km of the coast, this is a significant health issue for Australia.

See also: Planning

There are a number of diseases that are connected or exacerbated by climate change including:

  • water borne disease
  • food borne disease
  • vector borne disease
  • diabetes, hypertention, obesity
  • respiratory illness

Water Borne Diseases
Remote Aboriginal communities are particularly vulnerable to water-borne disease resulting from climate change. In central Australia, Aboriginal people living in remote arid communities already have a high number of diarrhoea admissions among children throughout the region. This is likely to increase along with temperature. Given assumptions relating to future climate projections, the mean annual temperatures for this region are projected to increase by 2020 by 0.5-1.0°C, and by 2050 by 1.0-3.5°C. This is predicted to translate to an increase of 3-5% in diarrhoeal admissions by 2020, and of 5-18% by 2050.

Food Borne Disease
Increased temperatures provide opportunity for various viruses, bacteria and parasites to contaiminate food causing gastrointestinal diseases such as diarrhoea and vomiting, although occasionally more severe disease such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome or hepatitis can result. Incidences of bacterial food borne disease increase during the summer months and are worse in the Northern regions of Australia.

There are strong seasonal patterns for Salmonella and Campylobacter infection in Australia. Global warming may increase the incidence of infections, such as salmonellosis, and diseases caused by toxins such as ciguatera, poisoning caused by ingesting fish contaminated with ciguatoxin, characterised by gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms. Higher ocean temperatures may increase the incidence of ciguatera poisoning.

Vector-borne disease
Climate change will cause increased incidences of vector-borne disease in Australia. The most common mosquito-borne disease in Australia is epidemic polyarthritis, which is caused by infection with either Ross River virus or Barmah Forest virus. The Department of Health and Aging report states that as the climate warms up, the tropical weather zone in Australia will spread south, bringing with it disease vectors. Other mosquito-borne diseases that could increase as the temperature increases are malaria, dengue fever, Australian encephalitis, and Japanese encephalitis (AMA and ACF).

Dengue fever is likely to spread in Australia due to climate change. Under predicted climate change scenarios the current dengue risk region will expand substantially, meaning that people in areas as far south as Sydney could be affected by dengue fever by 2100 (ibid).

Australian Conservation Foundation/ Australian Medical Association (2005) "Climate Change Health Impacts in Australia"

Higher prices for fresh produce are likely to force those on low incomes to purchase lower quality, processed foods. This will further contribute to associated health risks such as childhood obesity. One in four children is currently overweight and it is estimated that half of all young Australians will be overweight by 2025.[2]

The impacts of climate change upon the dietary health of Indigenous people may include increases in diabetes and hypertension, and increased obesity caused by the replacement of traditional food with processed food. Many remote Aboriginal communities that follow a traditional diet could be vulnerable to these health problems due to predicted changes in the amount and distribution of wildlife, fish and vegetation (AMA and ACF).

Respiratory Illnesses
Photochemical smog is generated by the interaction between air pollution, heat, and sunlight in still conditions, resulting in respiratory problems. Prolonged heat conditions can lead to more frequent and severe smog episodes, and the dispersal of allergens - both of which have been linked to respiratory disease (McMichael, Woodruff & Hales).

Below is a table of the implications of climate change for disease in Australia:

Infectious diseases: transmission of infectious disease is determined by many factors, including social, economic, climatic, and ecological conditions. Flooding, compromised water and food security and hygiene which is compromised during extreme weather events.
Water borne disease: drought and the resultant decline in water quality are responsible for the increased incidence of water-borne disease. Water contamination of bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasites, which often occurs during drought and flooding.
Food borne disease: contamination of food by viruses, bacteria and pathogens. Increased heat (surface and ocean temperature) increases prevalence of food contaminants.
Vector borne diseases: pathogens being transmitted from human to human or animal to human via mosquitoes. Increased temperatures and flooding will exacerbate the breeding cycle of mosquitoes.
Respiratory illness: atmospheric pollution which inhibits respiratory functioning. Prolonged heat can create more smog and dispersal of allergens.
Diabetes/Hypertension/Obesity: diseases that can be greatly affected by lifestyle/diet. Higher prices for fresh produce could result in lower-income people to eat lower quality/processed food. Changes in wildlife, fish and vegetation could force people to replace traditional eating with processed food.

Wilmoth, P (2005) "Generation XL: The Obesity Crisis Special Report. The Age. 21 August 2005, p.11

 © CANA 2006