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Heat Advisory: Protecting Health on a Warming Planet
by Dr. Alan Lockwood

Drawing on peer-reviewed scientific and medical research, Dr. Lockwood meticulously details the symptoms of climate change and their medical side effects.

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Effects of Climate Change on the Health of Women and Infants

May 1, 2017

Published in ACOG District VIII Gazette, May 2017 (membership required)

Members of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility: Louis Vontver, MD, Med; Margaret Kitchell, MD; Kenneth Lans, MD, MBA

As physicians, we are increasingly alarmed by the impacts of climate change on human health. All of us can be harmed, but some are more vulnerable than others, including infants and pregnant women—especially if they are poor.

There are a number of ways that climate change has been linked to worse health outcomes among women and infants. One concern is extreme weather events, whose frequency and intensity is increased by global climate change. Children are more likely to die from environmental factors than adults. This vulnerability applies to a wide range of events, from sudden events like floods, to gradual events like droughts, all of which can result in homelessness and increased stress.

Climate-related stress on mothers can result in preterm births and low birth weight. Children are especially vulnerable to stressful situations, and the stress can result in changes to neural development, which can in turn affect memory, decision making, and other cognitive functions.

Climate change is also linked to expanding ranges of disease vectors. Malaria produces higher mortality in children than in adults, and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to malaria, as they are more attractive to malaria-carrying mosquitoes than other adults. West Nile virus, Dengue, Lyme Disease, hantavirus, and Zika virus are also worrisome.

Heat-related illness and mortality are additional concerns. The World Health Organization reports that women are more vulnerable than men to heat waves. Pregnant women already have higher core temperatures, and higher external temperatures can increase the proportion of pre-term births and low birth weight. Infants are especially vulnerable to heat-related deaths, and head-related events have been linked to SIDS.

These are not the only ways in which climate change can affect health for women and infants, but they are reason enough to act now to address climate change as a public health crisis. The longer we wait to act, the warmer the earth will become, and the more severe and widespread impacts will be.

There is still hope. As health care professionals, we can use our trusted voices to raise awareness among our peers and the public, and we can speak up in support of policies that mitigate climate change. These may be policies that reduce poverty, lower fossil fuel emissions, and promote renewable energy. If we do these things, we will be protecting the health of women and infants.

About Physicians for Social Responsibility

Physicians for Social Responsibility engages the community to create a healthy, peaceful, and sustainable world. As health professionals, we work to confront the greatest threats to human health, including climate change, nuclear weapons, and economic inequality. For more information, visit psr.org. To find a chapter in your area, visit http://www.psr.org/chapters/

References

Bartlett, S. (2008). Climate change and urban children: Impacts and implications for adaptation in low- and middle-income countries. Environment and Urbanization, 20, 501-519.

Clayton, S., Manning, C.M., Krysgman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.

Kousky, C. (2016). Impacts of natural disasters on children. The Future of Children, 26, 73-92.

Public Health Institute/Center for Climate Change and Health. (2016). Special Focus: Climate Change and Pregnant Women.

Reynolds M.R., Jones A.M., Peterson E.E., et al. (2017). Vital Signs: Update on Zika Virus-Associated Birth Defects and Evaluation of All U.S. Infants with Congenital Zika Virus Exposure — U.S. Zika Pregnancy Registry, 2016. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 66: 366-373.

World Health Organization. (2014). Gender, Climate Change and Health.

Zivin, J., & Shrader, J. (2016). Temperature extremes, health, and human capital. The Future of Children, 26, 31-50.

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