The Fourth River

Health for the Earth; Health for Us All

By on June 25, 2016

By Athena Wintruba, assistant editor, The Fourth River


We’ve all heard about Zika virus by now: the illness, similar to yellow fever and West Nile virus transmitted by mosquitos. The virus typically results in fever, rash, and joint pain (uncomfortable but relatively mild symptoms), but it is more dangerous in pregnant women and believed to result in babies born with birth defects such as undersized heads and brain damage. The concern is so great that Zika virus has recently been declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). What you may not know, however, is that climate change may be contributing to the spread of Zika virus.

The transmitters of Zika virus, mosquitos, thrive in standing pools of water. Thus more precipitation due to climate change means more stagnant water, happier mosquitoes, and a faster spreading of the virus. In addition, warmer temperatures also means a longer transmission season for diseases and illnesses like Zika virus, yellow fever, West Nile, and malaria. In fact, “according to WHO, a global temperature rise of 2-3C will increase the number of people at risk of malaria by around 3-5%, which equates to several hundred million.” But diseases transmitted by way of mosquitoes are just the start when it comes to the health effects that could result from climate change.

It is commonly understood that an increase in greenhouse gases leads to an increase in temperatures. While initially we may revel in the shorter winters, the extreme heat may result in increased heat related deaths including cardiovascular and respiratory disease. The increased rain patterns have also resulted in natural disasters tripling since the 1960s. Since more than half of the world’s population lives within 40 miles of the sea, the impact of water based natural disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, floods and the like is enormous. Destruction of homes and medical facilities means people are forced to relocate and that there are fewer areas for treating those who have been physically and emotionally affected. Shockingly, this increased rainfall also decreases the fresh water supply, killing 760,000 children under five yearly.

What are the costs of climate change to the health of the Earth and its people? Massive. WHO estimates the monetary cost to reach $2-4 billion per year by 2030, and while currently the death toll from air pollution totals 8 million every year, by 2050, conservatively, that number will rise by an additional 250,000.

The solution? We must reduce the number of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the tired tale for those trying to save the planet. But maybe now that it isn’t just the planet at stake an innumerable amount of decades into the future, but a concrete time where people and our health are more obviously at risk, the masses will be inclined to act.