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Climate & Environment

A warmer world is an unhealthier place for children, doctors warn

Climate health
A relative sits with a young patient receiving treatment for dengue fever at a hospital in Honduras.
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Children are growing up in a warmer world that will hit them with more and different health problems than their parents experienced, doctors warn in a new report.

With more dangerous heat waves, air pollution and increases in mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria, man-made global warming is already harming public health around the world, according to the annual climate change and health report published Wednesday by the medical journal the Lancet.

The report and its authors said they worried that the future health of the world’s youngest people would become even more grim if emissions of heat-trapping gases weren’t curbed.

Children born today “are going to be increasingly exposed to more and more harms that I did not experience,” said study coauthor Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

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“I cannot think of a greater health emergency,” Salas said.

Already, the number of days when conditions are ripe for the spread of the water-borne bacteria Vibrio, a major cause of debilitating diarrhea, has doubled since 1980, with last year ranking second-highest on record, the report said. Because of the warming climate, 29% more of the U.S. coastline is vulnerable to Vibrio. The report also said the cholera version of Vibrio has increased nearly 10%.

Nine of the top 10 years where conditions were most ripe for dengue fever transmission have occurred since 2000, the report said.

Those diseases hit children harder. And children, the elderly, the poor and the sick are most hurt during extreme heat with dangerous overheating, respiratory disease and kidney problems.

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“Children are the most vulnerable. They will bear the vast vast majority of the burden of climate change,” said Dr. Nick Watts, an Australian emergency room physician and the lead author of the global report. “Their health will be hit by climate change in a profoundly different way.”

While medicine and public health have improved over the decades, allowing people to live longer, climate change “threatens to undermine all of the gains we’ve had,” Salas said.

Dr. Cindy Parker, an environmental health professor at Johns Hopkins University, praised the peer-reviewed report. But she worried that focusing on the health effects that have already happened lessens the urgency to focus on the future.

“Climate change is a risk amplifier,” said Parker, who wasn’t involved in the Lancet report.

Salas said diseases that spread farther because of a changing climate, such as Lyme disease, are something she has to consider when she treats patients in the emergency room.

During a heat wave in July, she said she saw an elderly man with a body temperature of 106 degrees. The ambulance crew said he lived on the top floor of a public housing complex with no air conditioning, and when they opened the door “there was this wave of heat that hit them.”

Salas was able to save the elderly patient. But as a doctor, she struggles with cases where there is no way to treat the patient.

When health problems stem from climate change, she and others said, the remedy is stopping emissions of heat-trapping gases from the burning of coal, oil and gas.

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”We can’t ‘doctor’ our way out of this,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Assn. “We must address the root causes of climate change.”


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