Climate Change Is a Public Health Emergency, Medical Groups Warn

Dana Najjar

July 01, 2019

A total of 74 medical and public health groups issued a call to action against climate change last week, describing it as a public health emergency that threatens the health, safety, and well-being of millions of Americans. Climate change was also described as a major health opportunity to "deliver immediate and sustained health benefits to all."

The signatories, which include the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association, represent a united front of healthcare professionals, hospitals, healthcare systems, health education institutions, and community-based health agencies and organizations.

"This should have been done a long time ago, but now is better than later," Boris Lushniak, MD, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland and former acting US surgeon general, told Medscape Medical News. "Let's go beyond the politics here" and focus on the measurable effects a hotter planet has on the health of a population, he urged.

The US Call to Action on Climate Health and Equity, which includes a list of 10 policy priorities, urges elected officials and civil society leaders to "recognize climate change as a health emergency and to work across government agencies and with communities and businesses to prioritize action on this Climate, Health and Equity Policy Action Agenda."

The policies focus on changes that will advance both health targets and climate solutions. These include transitioning from coal, oil, and natural gas to renewable energy; emphasizing active transportation, such as walking and cycling; and promoting sustainable food systems and water supplies.

The organizations are also calling on the healthcare sector to go green by adopting climate-smart practices in all facilities, developing "low-carbon health care delivery models," such as telemedicine, and redesigning all curricula to prepare the healthcare workforce to "lead the charge in climate change mitigation and adaptation."

The health effects of climate change have been well documented. They include "increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, and those with insufficient resources, are particularly at risk.

"Almost everything that's good for the health of the planet is actually good for the person," said Lushniak, "and our role is to combine those two together."

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