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Doctors’ Group Warns of Health Risks from Global Warming

In an editorial out today, the American Medical Association says doctors in several states are already seeing an increase in climate change-related illnesses, including vector-borne diseases like dengue fever as well as chronic conditions such as asthma. The editorial, published in American Medical News, an online publication, begins with the provocative statement: "If physicians want evidence of climate change, they may well find it in their own offices."

It continues:

Patients are presenting with illnesses that once happened only in warmer areas. Chronic conditions are becoming aggravated by more frequent and extended heat waves. Allergy and asthma seasons are getting longer. Spates of injuries are resulting from more intense ice storms and snowstorms.

The Association cites examples in Florida, where cases of dengue fever, a tropical illness spread by mosquitos that is rarely seen in the US, have been noted recently, and in Maine, where Lyme disease is increasingly common in areas where it had not been prevalent before. The AMA has been leading workshops in these and other states to educate public health authorities about the risks that climate change poses to human health. As the editorial states:

The examples of Florida and Maine show how vector-borne diseases are spreading because of climate change. In Florida, changes in migration patterns and temperatures allow for dengue-infected mosquitoes to circulate. In Maine, warmer and shorter winters mean that deer ticks die off in smaller numbers, which means more will breed and advance farther north.

The AMA says part of a physician's role in dealing with climate-related health problems is "Treating diseases or conditions new to their location -- and finding the ones that are growing worse..." This seems like an apt way to frame the public health consequences of climate change in a particular location, considering that climate change is unlikely to cause diseases to occur, but rather is expected to redraw disease boundaries and aggravate certain preexisting conditions, while possibly ameliorating others (for example, deaths from extreme cold may decrease in some areas even as deaths from extreme heat increase).

We'll have more on the public health effects of climate change in coming weeks, including a Q&A with the authors of a new book on this subject.

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By Peter G. Joseph, M.D. (san anselmo, CA 94960)
on April 5th, 2011

I have been an emergency physician for 35 years and I say good for the AMA! They ought to take a more proactive role in educating both physicians and the public about the health consequences of climate change. The spread of tropical diseases is just the tip of the iceberg—no pun intended. The coming age of instability will lead to famine, drought, floods, hurricanes, resource wars, mass migration of climate refugees, ethnic tensions, social chaos, disruption of supply chains, mandatory reallocation of scarce funds, weakening of democratic institutions and the need for tighter social control by military means. None of this is good for anyone’s health and well being.

Right now we have a serious political problem: powerful forces who stand to lose are resisting the transition to a post-carbon energy economy. They spread misinformation about the science in order to create doubt in the public’s mind. The AMA is a political organization and should see to it that they stand on the side of public health. They should take on the climate deniers head on as a medical issue.

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