Climate change and your health

Graham Clements
Summary 
Climate change is predicted to have many health effects in Australia. The Climate Commission and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have reported some of these health effects. They say the poor, elderly, Indigenous people and the sick are most likely to be affected by climate change. More people are expected to die from extreme heat. But less people are expected to die from the cold. Warmer temperatures are expected to increase diseases and infections. Climate change is expected to cause more floods, storms and bushfires. Australia needs to prepare for the health effects of climate change.
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Graham Clements on 04/05/2012
Capturing the moments
Capturing the moments

An increase in floods is expected.

Climate change has the potential to affect people in many ways. Most obvious are its environmental effects. But less talked about are climate change's effects on health. According to recent reports, climate change is likely to have many health impacts. These reports say the people most affected by climate change include the poor, elderly, Indigenous people and those with chronic illnesses.

Hotter temperatures

A recent report from the Climate Commission forecasts an increase in heat-related deaths. But that report also forecasts a decrease in deaths due to less extreme cold events. Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania should see a decrease in cold-related deaths. But that decrease is projected to be more than made up for by deaths caused by heat in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. People with heart and kidney problems or type-two diabetes are particularly vulnerable to days of extreme heat.

Increased air pollution

As Australia warms, the Climate Commission expects an increase in air pollution. They also predict an increase in airborne allergens like pollen. Air pollutants and allergens can have serious impacts on people with respiratory illnesses such as asthma and heart disease.

Increase in diseases

The Climate Commission and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expect an increase in infectious diseases. Mosquitos that spread dengue fever are expected to move down from northern Queensland as Australia warms. As temperatures rise so does the risk of incidence of bacterial illness from food such as salmonella. The IPCC forecasts an increase in diarrhoeal diseases in Indigenous people in central Australia.

Extreme weather events

Both the Climate Commission and IPCC expect an increase in extreme weather events like floods and bushfires. Apart from burns and injuries, smoke from bushfires can affect people with respiratory illnesses like asthma. People drown in floods and the floodwater can be contaminated with sewerage and other toxins.

A little reported consequence of the Queensland floods was an increase of leptospirosis. This disease causes flu-like symptoms and can lead to organ failure. The Darling Downs Public Health Unit reported 37 cases of leptospirosis after the recent Toowoomba floods. This was a four-fold increase on previous years. One person died from the illness.

Mental health

Heat and dryness contribute to mental health problems according to the Climate Commission. Floods, storms and bushfires may also leave people with post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. In Australia there are links between suicide in farming communities during periods of drought.

Prepare for health effects

The IPCC says climate change's influence on health will be modest over the next few decades. But it warns climate change's effect on health is expected to increase mid-century. This is why it's so important that Australia prepare for the health effects of climate change.

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