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Is climate change affecting your health?

Wednesday - 10/2/2013, 8:32am  ET

Data show the general public is becoming increasingly aware of climate change's threats to human health. (AP)
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WASHINGTON - Wind, heat, rain, snow and severe storms have long been blamed for interruptions to the nation's overall infrastructure, but federal and state officials are more carefully studying changing weather patterns as a direct threat to human health.

"Climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of storms, like heat waves, and will increase the intensity of major storms, like hurricanes, and these have a broad range of impacts on health," says Dr. George Luber, epidemiologist and associate director of the Climate and Health Program, a project established at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009.

Luber discusses three primary ways climate change affects the health of humans. These factors include an increase in heat, compromised access to care and changes in disease ecology. Each varies in severity depending on geographical location.

The CDC is not the only institution connecting changing weather patterns to more intensified health problems. Other government agencies and national organizations are delving into the subject, as well. And data show the general public is becoming increasingly aware of climate change's impact on human health.

A recent survey from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and George Mason University found 70 percent of Maryland respondents consider air pollution -- more than obesity -- the primary concern when it comes to personal health.

Insect-borne diseases, violent storms and polluted drinking water also topped the list. Fifty-three percent of Maryland respondents say violent storms are becoming more common health problems in their communities, and 48 percent of survey respondents say climate change is a health problem in their communities.

"The link between climate change and public health is one that I think people are becoming increasingly aware of, and we are trying to think about ways that we, as a public health community, can and should be participating in that planning for climate change," says Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Environmental Health Bureau at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"What we've learned is people not only look at the link between extreme weather events and health in many cases they are already doing something to prepare for that."

Climate change, health and heat

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-sponsored scientific group comprised of 195 member countries, predicts the Earth's sea levels will rise slightly more than 3 feet by the end of this century and temperatures will warm by at least 2 more degrees Fahrenheit.

"Things like heat waves not only have an impact through heat exposure and heat stroke, but also have a subtle but important effect on those with cardiovascular and respiratory disease. And we see increases in emergency department visits, hospital admissions and deaths for all of those conditions surrounding (heat waves)," Luber says.

Local physician Dr. Adina Knight of the Allergy and Asthma Center says she sees an obvious increase in the number of patients affected by asthma and respiratory illness on extremely hot days.

"(Heat) definitely causes a significant amount of problems," says Knight, who says she especially witnessed an increase in troubled asthmatic patients when she worked in the hotter climate of Birmingham, Ala. "We're having more asthma patients over the years, people are more aware."

Luber says individuals of more vulnerable populations should stay indoors on extreme heat days and avoid outdoor activities during high-ozone times of the day to avoid heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses.

"Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to the impacts of degraded air quality and temperature rises," Luber says. "Identifying those early warning signs of heat exposure and heat exhaustion is critical to preventing progressing to a potentially fatal condition of heat stroke."

Climate change, health and access to care

An increase in severe weather events is likely to impact the nation's transportation and communication systems, making it more difficult for patients to access care, Luber says.

He points to Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy as recent large-scale, high-intensity events that have compromised public health though interrupted infrastructure.

"It's through this route that public health systems and emergency response systems can be overwhelmed," Luber says.

Climate change, health and changes in disease ecology

A third way climate change will impact health is through subtle changes to disease ecology. Luber describes this as a change in where organisms that transmit disease, such as fleas, mosquitos and ticks, are found.

"This will alter the geography of certain diseases, expanding some areas and contracting in others," says Luber, who adds weather-related events, such as drought and extreme rainfall are associated with the emergence of certain diseases, such as West Nile virus.

"Climate change will have the effect of altering the ecology in certain areas that favor disease emergence," Luber says.

How to prepare for and prevent climate-related illness

Since the implications for an increase in climate-related health effects is dependent on many different factors, including geography, public health institutions, such as the CDC and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, are gathering the best evidence available to equip individual communities with the information they need to respond to climate events.

For example, in Maryland, Mitchell takes into account the state's most common weather patterns. He explains the western part of the state will most likely experience heavy precipitation, whereas the eastern part of Maryland is threatened with coastal flooding.

But Mitchell and Luber say one thing remains constant across all geographies, and that is properly preparing for severe weather.

"Individuals can first and foremost prepare themselves for extreme weather events by having a plan," Luber says. "This could and should include a communications plan, where to meet, etc."

Keeping reserves of water, batteries and flashlights is another key to preventing illness from severe weather. Individuals also can take action by identifying the particular vulnerabilities that they, or individuals they care for, have in response to extreme weather events.

"If you have a family member who relies on medication, for example, you should be prepared with reserves of that medication in the event of lack of access to transportation," Luber says.

"Climate change is one of a number of things that affects public health," Mitchell says. "The best preparedness for any specific threat is a plan that is a preparedness for your home, regardless of what the problem is."

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