Vanderbilt Medical experts: Climate change affects health

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An increase in auto-inflammatory diseases, skin conditions and even cancer may result from creeping global climate change, healthcare professionals said during a Monday seminar hosted by Vanderbilt University Medical Center as part of a series on health equity.

“I think it’s important to take a step back and just acknowledge that climate change impacts every organ system in our bodies. But beyond this, climate change acts as a threat enhancer that not only drives disease but also amplifies food and water insecurity, conflict, failure of infrastructure and inequities,” said Eva Rawlings Parker, an assistant professor of dermatology at VUMC.

Using COVID-19 as an example, speakers discussed how global migration allows disease to spread around the world, and that climate change will impact the spread of vector-borne diseases.

“So things that we may not think about being endemic in the United States – like leishmaniasis, dengue or other vector-borne diseases – will likely be knocking on our door soon enough as a result of both global warming and climate impacts, but also likely because of migration,” Parker said.

Along with disease, climate change and related pollution affects Tennesseans’ daily lives. For instance, increasing temperatures and exposure to hot days affects both sleep and exercise and has been linked to low-birth weights.

Parker said she has seen an increase in the effects of climate change on her patients. Along with increased insect activity leading to more diseases from bites, air pollution from carbon dioxide has caused allergies to worsen.

“I see things like heat and air pollution worsening many auto-inflammatory diseases of the skin,” said Parker, adding that air pollution has also contributed to an increase in cancer rates.

When patients are told about the effects of climate change on their health, “they’re often surprised that it’s affecting their health directly,” she added.

The healthcare industry is also partially to blame for climate change, said one speaker.

“Hospital waste is an increasing concern,” said Ariella Shuster, circular equipment business leader at global technology company, Philips.

Climate change will continue to worsen if immediate action is not taken, said speakers, and asked for legislators, residents and local governments to collaborate.

“If one good thing came out of our experience with the pandemic, is the fact that we can have a whole society respond to a big problem,” said Christa Brelsford, research scientist in the geospatial science and human security division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“The extent of the impact that COVID had on all lives in America was profound, and it worked to an extent. And if we have that level of response to climate change, we can change the future of our planet,” she added.

Dulce Torres Guzman is a reporter for the Tennessee Lookout, which first published this report.

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Vanderbilt Medical experts: Climate change affects health