As Prescribed: Where climate change meets public health


SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – While healthcare workers strive to save lives, “climate change threatens the ability of health systems to deliver safe, effective and efficient care,” that patients need, according to Dr. Meghana Gadgil of UCSF.

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Gadgil, who gave a webinar this June about healthcare and climate change, joined KCBS Radio’s Alice Wertz on “As Prescribed” this week to explore where pubic health, equity and climate change intersect.

“The impacts of climate change are going to impact hundreds of millions of people around the world,” she said. “And we’re already seeing that today.”

Some specific ailments related to climate change death estimates between 2030 and 2050 include malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Gadgil, who is an associate professor of medicine at UCSF and director of innovation at BetterLab, said that climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths during that 20-year period.

Climate change has a wide-ranging impact on public health, per the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
. Gadgil broke it down into a few categories: extreme temperatures that can kill 5 million people annually; that in 2018 alone resulted in nearly 2 million deaths; floods that, as of 2016, impacted 74 million people, and large, deadly storms.

“There’s been a sharp rise in malaria, dengue and many foodborne and waterborne diseases due to the expanding geographic range and changes in seasonality due to rising temperature and precipitation and deforestation and air pollution,” Gadgil said. “Endemic infectious diseases and novel disease outbreaks are all going to likely worsen due to favorable conditions for vectors and pathogens,” she added.

On top of those climate change impacts, Gadgil pointed out the mental health toll of dealing with catastrophic climate events and disease. Climate change-related issues such as flooding and drought can even lead to political unrest.

“Each year since 2008, more than 20 million people have moved due to weather related events globally. In extreme cases, entire populations will need to move because they are living in climate vulnerable areas and their livelihoods are no longer tenable there,” Gadgil explained.

People most impacted by climate change are often from vulnerable populations. In the Bay Area, Capital B reported last month that residents of a majority-Black housing complex are at risk for toxic contamination due to sea level rise.

Extreme weather events can also hinder the ability of doctors, nurses and medical professionals to treat patients. For example, California wildfires have resulted in 250 simultaneous hospital power outages in the past.

Even as health care workers strive to help people impacted by climate disasters, Gadgil recently told Forbes that the health system in the U.S. alone also contributes to pollution that puts lives at risk.

Gadgil said a way forward might be to open up our idea of what a health system is. This new understanding of a healthcare system would include our transportation systems, our food systems, the system of workers who provide patient care and, of course, our climate.

You can also listen to last week’s “As Prescribed” discussion about childhood trauma and later life physical conditions here.

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