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Even though there is not much awareness of the impacts of global warming on health yet, this phenomenon exacerbates the conditions of some diseases, such as dengue fever, asthma and malaria. Latin America is not safe from this problem.
Source: laprensa.com.ar. By Sebastián Muzi.
Twelve years. That’s the time we have left to avoid irreversible climate disruption, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The Paris Agreement, which replaced the Kyoto Protocol, was signed by 195 countries in 2015; however, no progress has been made yet to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming.
“Climate change is already here, and we have to start working. Every region will suffer it in different ways: some will have more hurricanes, others will have less precipitation and some others will have more of it,” Alejandro Miranda Velázquez, manager of the Development Bank of Latin America, says.
In a discussion with Latin American journalists, including this media company, the economist said that 54% of the global population live in cities, and that these people will suffer the most, since 70% of gas emissions are generated in metropolises. This is a very important fact when considering the diseases caused by a rise in temperature.
“An increase of one degree in the last century has caused higher minimum and maximum temperatures every day, which endangers human health,” says Matilde Rusticucci, researcher of CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council) and professor at Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA).
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that climate change has been responsible for 6% of global malaria cases, and almost half of the world population is exposed to this disease, with Africa at the top of the list with a devastating 90% of reported cases.
Though data in Latin America are not as shocking as in Africa, there has been an increase in some areas of Venezuela, going from 136,000 cases in 2015 to 411,000 only two years later, as a result of the serious economic and social crisis in that country. Nicaragua is in the same situation, with three times the number of cases in said period.
Although Brazil has recognized an increase of malaria cases in 2017, this disease did not cause an epidemic. Epidemics were caused by outbreaks of dengue, zika and chikungunya fever two years before, mainly in several endemic regions of the Amazon, and then spread to many regions of South America and the Caribbean.
Because of it, this year the Brazilian Ministry of Health conducted a research study to assess the infestation level in the cities of that country. According to the study, around 1,000 cities have high outbreak risk, while 2,160 are in alert state.
“The Aedes Aegypti mosquito (carrier of the three diseases) is closely related to climate change, since it needs special temperature and humidity conditions: the warmer the weather, the faster their reproduction”, explains Aníbal Carbajo, researcher of UBA Ecology, Genetics and Evolution Department.
In Argentina, for instance, dengue fever had been eliminated in 1960, yet it reappeared in the last few decades, concurring with higher temperatures. The highest point was recorded in 2016, when the epidemic level was reached with more than 70,000 patients, the worst record in the country’s history.
Zika fever created havoc in the land of soccer, samba and carnival. In 2015, when the disease originated, zika bites in pregnant women caused children to be born with microcephaly. At first, doctors were confused because the symptoms were similar to those of dengue fever: fever, skin rash, painful joints and conjunctivitis.
Chikungunya fever has similar signs as well. While the first outbreak was in Tanzania in 1952, it just appeared in our region in 2006 due to cases imported from abroad, and the first victim was registered in the Caribbean island of San Martin (which belongs to France) in 2013.
On the other hand, cholera and yellow fever can develop at the same time with a heat wave or proper conditions for mosquito reproduction, though they do not have the same statistics as the previous virus. Despite it all, both national and Pan-American entities have made efforts to spread information about prevention measures—particularly not leaving stagnant water for days—or immunization of patients in the case of yellow fever, also called “vómito negro” (black vomit).
The Australian scientist Paul Beggs has proven in a study that climate change has a direct impact on the incidence of allergens in the air, such as pollen or food (e.g., peanuts), on allergic asthma.
Beggs, professor at Macquarie University, discovered that carbon dioxide and temperature directly affect plant metabolism through photosynthesis, while high CO2 concentrations cause those common legume plants to have heavier pods.
In 2009, ten years ago, the experts who gathered at the XXI World Allergy Congress of Buenos Aires pointed out that “changes in distribution, quantity and quality of pollen (allergy triggers), as well as environmental pollution, might be related to a higher asthma and allergy prevalence, and to worse symptoms in patients.”
Basque doctor Ignacio Ansotegui, president of the World Allergy Organization (WAO), believes that “climate change, along with an urban lifestyle, pollution and stress, are making allergic diseases become the worst noninfectious epidemics of this century.”
Nowadays, around 235 million people have asthma, and the disease can be found in every single country, regardless of how developed each of them is, so Latin America is not safe from this problem.
The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) is a global research project on prevalence and risk factors related to asthma and allergic diseases in childhood. This study (which can be found at http://www.neumologia-pediatrica.cl/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Consideraciones.pdf) concludes that asthma is the most frequent chronic respiratory disease in pediatrics, and it does not discriminate between rich or poor, nor between nations.
According to this research, Peru has the highest rate of children with asthma in the region with 27%, followed by Costa Rica (22%), Panama and Paraguay (17%), Brazil (16%) and Argentina (10%).
In 2015, The Lancet Countdown published a report which states that anthropogenic climate change is “threatening more than 50 years of progress in the field of public health,” as it affects all sectors of society.
In fact, “it challenges the countries’ infrastructure,” claims Antonella Risso, technical coordinator of Health Care Without Harm, since, when heat waves in unprepared places occur, power cuts (a common problem when demand peaks are reached) may generate serious disorders on electricity-dependent people or make living in buildings complicated due to lack of elevators and water.
“Not taking action compromises health and global economy,” Carolina Gil Posse adds. She also highlights that the expenditure reduction that could be achieved by mitigating global warming is 2.5 times higher than the investment required to achieve it.
Therefore, adaptation becomes crucial to avoid, for instance, allergies due to bad air quality, malnutrition, diarrhea and cholera caused by contaminated water, cardiovascular damage due to extreme heat or forced migration of entire families because of the degradation of their environment.
Now, how can humans adapt to a problem they caused?
In 2015, WHO approved an action plan with four key aspects: 1) partnerships with other UN organizations who have health and environment as topics on their agendas, 2) informing people about climate threats and their risks, 3) coordinating reviews of scientific evidence and 4) helping vulnerable countries create response capacity and promote health.
In spite of that, it always seems initiatives are not enough. This is a warning by the Secretary General the United Nations, António Guterres. “Today, I’m asking for leadership from politicians, scientists and businesspeople, as well as from people all over the world. We have the tools to make our actions effective. What is missing, even after the Paris Agreement, is the ambition to do whatever it takes. The most alarming aspect of climate change is that scientists have been warning us about it over and over again for decades, yet several leaders refused to listen. Just a few have taken action with the necessary approach, and we are seeing the results.”
These results show that, out of the ten most vulnerable countries to climate change worldwide, five are in America—Puerto Rico, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua and Dominica—, though microclimates or diseases that affect each Latin American nation in particular were not considered.
“Technology is on our side waiting to be used. Clean fuels, alternative construction materials or advances in agriculture have a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We do not have more time to lose, and it is not too late to change our path,” urges Guterres, considering the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which will be held in Chile between December 2nd and 13th.