By Patricia B. Mirasol 

NO DISEASE GROUP is spared from the effects of climate change, as the rise in global temperatures is increasing the incidence of heat-related illnesses and expanding the reach of zoonotic diseases like coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), according to a study commissioned by insurance provider Pru Life UK, a subsidiary of British financial service provider Prudential plc.  

“Climate change reverses some of the gains we already had in public health,” said the study’s co-author Dr. Ramon Lorenzo R. Guinto, a planetary health expert and member of the National Panel of Technical Experts of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippine government. Planetary health is a field that refers to the interconnectedness of humanity’s wellbeing to the quality of their environment.  

Released this November, the paper offers five actions for mitigating the negative health impact of climate change: viewing climate change as a public health issue; transitioning to clean renewable energy as a means to keeping the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius; pursuing climate adaptation to enhance resilience to disasters and other health impacts; raising everyone’s awareness of climate change and adaptation; and enacting financial solutions as a protection from climate emergency-related shocks.   

“Don’t just be concerned about the future waves of COVID-19, but also the future tsunamis of recessions, climate change, and biodiversity collapse,” warned Dr. Guinto. “Hopefully, we will recover and revitalize universal healthcare also as a climate change measure.”  

A key finding, according to the study, is that there is no disease group immune to the effects of climate change. In the Philippines, some of the disease conditions that are expected to worsen include:  

  • Heat-related illnesses like heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke — The country does not have the national and local heat health plans that are more familiar to temperate regions like Europe, Dr. Guinto said. “In a tropical place like the Philippines, people think, ‘Oh, we can withstand high temperatures,’” he added.
  • Vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria — In the National Capital Region alone, every 1 degree Celsius increase in minimum temperature will cause 233 more dengue cases. Droughts and floods yield dengue outbreaks, as the stagnant bodies of water that are created become breeding grounds for virus-carrying mosquitoes.
  • Emerging infectious diseases with pandemic potential like COVID-19 — An estimated 75% of emerging human infectious diseases are noted to be of zoonotic origin. The conversion of animal habitat into agricultural use has brought animals and humans in closer interaction, increasing the chance of exchanging pathogens.
  • Cardiorespiratory diseases due to air pollution, as well as other forms of pollution produced by fossil fuels — Air pollution exposes 91% of the world’s population to poor air quality levels. In Switzerland-based Institute for Management Development (IMD)’s smart city index 2020, Manila scored low in air quality under the health and safety indicator.
  • Forced displacement of communities due to typhoons, storm surges, and coastal flooding —The prediction is that the coastal City of Manila could be underwater by 2050 if climate change isn’t addressed, said Dr. Guinto. Manila is not a unique situation; more than 60% of the Philippine population live in coastal areas. Rising sea levels may make these areas become uninhabitable, forcing mass displacements.
  • The co-occurrence of undernutrition and obesity resulting from climate-unfriendly food systems — Obesity is intertwined with malnutrition, and can stem from a diet that is calorically excessive but not nutritionally adequate. In the Philippines, the rate of increase in adult obesity exhibited a rapid growth between 1995 and 2015: 5.4% in men and 3.7% in women, according to the World Obesity Federation.
  • Mental health conditions emanating from both abrupt disasters and slow-onset environmental change — Typhoon Haiyan’s survivors still suffer mentally and emotionally, according to a 2019 news report, years after the 2013 climate emergency. Haiyan’s impact overwhelmed the disaster response which focused more on providing basic needs, setting mental health aside.

“This is an equity issue as well,” said Dr. Guinto. “It affects the marginalized at a greater degree… [rather] than us who have access to healthy food and air-conditioning.”  


SIDEBAR | How individuals can help mitigate climate change  

Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan, former Health secretary and chair of social development non-profit Health Futures Foundation, offered the following suggestions for mitigating climate change at an individual level:  

  • Start at home — practice recycling, waste segregation, and composting.
  • Limit plastic consumption — observe how much you use plastic, especially single-use plastic, in a given week.
  • Plant a tree — make it a regular activity, like a planned birthday event.
  • Consider eating green — lessen your consumption of red meat as its production is a contributor to land use-related greenhouse emissions.