A report released by the British government warned the country’s National Health System to expect thousands more deaths and complications from heatwaves, malaria, and contaminated water as global warming effects progress in the next five years.
Heat shimmer image by Mila Zinkova
The report, “Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK”, was written by Professor Bob Maynard and colleagues with the Health Protection Agency. It is being issued as official government advice to hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical institutions run by the government’s nationalized health care system.
The biggest danger to health, and the most likely to occur, is a major heatwave. The report predicts a heatwave will occur by 2012, causing between 3,000 and 10,000 deaths. Scientists put the odds of a heatwave in the south-east of England by that time at around 1 in 40. The report says: “In terms of conventional thinking about risks to health, 1 in 40 is high.” A French heatwave in 2003 caused the deaths of an estimated 14,000 people, most of them elderly.
The government has told all national medical institutions to create a plan to deal with the health effects of global warming. For one, they are told to prepare for possible outbreaks of malaria. Even though the study claims that a widespread outbreak of the disease is unlikely, rising temperatures will contribute to greater levels of mosquito and tick-borne diseases. The hospitals may also have to deal with the fallout from larger outbreaks of malaria in continental Europe, such as English tourists who contract the disease while travelling.
In addition to heatwaves and potential malaria outbreaks, the report suggests that deaths and health complications related to air pollution will also rise as global warming affects the pollution levels in Britain. They estimate up to 1,500 more deaths and hospital admissions related to air pollution each year, mostly related to asthma attacks and other breathing problems. Skin cancer deaths are also predicted to rise with increased exposure to sunlight.
There are some other odd side effects of the warmer summers the report predicts will be one of the effects of global warming in the near future. Warmer summers also mean more cases of food poisoning. The report predicts an almost 15% increase in food poisoning cases, working out to about 14,000 extra food poisoning cases every year. Floods, which were a major problem in the UK last summer, are expected to become a more common issue. The researchers believe the floods will cause more bacterial and algae blooms in reservoir and cause issues with the safety of drinking water.
Professor Maynard weighed in on the report recently, saying: “Climate change is likely to be one of the major challenges that humanity faces this century. It is important that we assess the possible health impact and take any actions that could minimise the consequences.”
While global warming skeptics will undoubtedly call the research fear-mongering, I take a more positive view of the report. If they’re wrong, nobody dies. If they’re right, hospitals are better prepared to deal with the resulting health issues and less people die. You may not think the effects of global warming will occur, or that human activity causes global warming. Even if you believe all that, however, I fail to see the problem in hospitals being better prepared to treat respiratory diseases, skin cancer, and heat stroke. These aren’t rarities in medicine anyway, so why not be ready for them?