Frequent floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather conditions could have huge health impacts for the UK, the British Medical Association (BMA) said today in a new online report on climate change.
The BMA report, "Health professionals – taking action on climate change", is calling on health professionals to take the lead on this issue - they have the opportunity and responsibility to highlight the public health risks associated with climate change.
The BMA's Head of Science and Ethics, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, said today:
"Doctors and other health professionals will be directly involved in the health impacts caused by climate change. Higher temperatures and heavier rainfall may increase the spread of infections like malaria that have previously been virtually nonexistent in the UK. Flooding can lead to the spread of infectious diseases and flood waters can become contaminated with substances including chemical waste, pesticides or inadequately treated human or animal sewage. Flooding also affects the delivery of health services and can have serious implications for mental health, including increased anxiety and depression."
Warmer climates could see an increase in skin cancers, sunburn and sunstroke. A recent study concluded that the death toll from the 2003 heatwave in Europe actually hit 70,000, a much greater figure than the 35,000 originally quoted. Heatwaves could be a common occurrence by the middle of the 21st century.
Climate change will exacerbate health inequalities, says the BMA report. In all countries, it will generally be the poorest people who will be the most affected. In the UK, the most deprived 10% of the population are eight times more likely to be living in the coastal floodplain than the least deprived 10%.
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, said health professionals are in a unique position to influence and promote social change:
"The NHS is the largest single organisation in the UK with an annual purchasing budget of around £17bn. It employs over one million people and emits around one million tonnes of carbon every year. There is huge potential for this employer to promote combating climate change. It is essential that when new hospitals, GP surgeries and other premises are being built that we learn from best practice construction projects.
"Given that it is the health service that often picks up the pieces when severe weather conditions strike, it makes sense for the NHS to invest in preventive healthcare and treatment for the health implications relating to climate change. Also, as the biggest employer in the UK it needs to take urgent action to address its considerable carbon footprint."
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