Climate change will add to health burden in India, children will suffer most: Study

New Delhi: The public health gains achieved in the past few decades, in the form of control or elimination of infectious diseases and improvements in children’s health, could be wiped out if uncontrolled climate change goes on, warns a new study released on Thursday.

Rising temperature, extreme weather events and changes in food production – all impacts of climate change – will result in serious impacts on the health sector. For instance, rise in temperatures will make infants more vulnerable to malnutrition as food prices go up with declines in yields of various crops. The average yield potential of maize and rice has declined almost 2% in India since the 1960s.

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Changing climate is resulting in alterations in temperature, precipitation and humidity, which in turn, is increasing the suitability for transmission of various infectious diseases, particularly mosquito-borne infections like dengue, malaria and chikungunya.

In India, the vectorial capacity of A. aegypti and A. albopictus to transmit dengue has increased by 2.3% and 4.6% respectively. The Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura have seen 15 to 20 fold increases in numbers of dengue cases since 2013, as the temperature there rises.

Children will be among the most to suffer from the rise in infectious diseases, with climatic suitability for the Vibrio bacteria that cause cholera rising 3% a year in India since the early 1980s, the study has pointed out.

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The study, done by 35 global institutions, has been published in medical journal The Lancet. It has focused on health damage from climate change and lifelong health consequences of rising temperatures for a child born today if the world continues to follow ‘business-as-usual’ pathway of carbon emissions.

Other health impacts of climate change will be in the form of worsening air pollution. In India, the total energy supply from coal has increased 11% from 2016 to 2018, and dangerous levels of outdoor fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) contributed to over 5 lakh premature deaths in 2016 and almost one lakh from this due to coal. Extreme weather events too will intensify.

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With its large population and high level of inequality, poverty and malnutrition, health effects of climate change in India will be huge. “Diarrhoeal infections, a major cause of child mortality, will spread into new areas, whilst deadly heatwaves, similar to the one in 2015 that killed thousands of people, could soon become the norm”, noted Dr Poornima Prabhakaran from the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), one of the co-authors of the study.

“Over the past two decades, the government has launched many initiatives and programs to address a variety of diseases and risk factors. But our study report shows that the public health gains achieved over the past 50 years could soon be reversed by the changing climate,” she added.

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By 2050, carbon dioxide concentrations are projected to reach levels which will lead to zinc and protein deficiencies in an additional 50 million and 38 million people respectively in India. About 400 million women of childbearing age and 100 million children under 5 will be at greater risk of iron deficiency. In addition, it is estimated that climate change could also cause a decline in land productivity (in monetary terms) of 49%, impacting the livelihood of farmers, according to a policy paper by PHFI and The Lancet Countdown, released along with the study.

Researchers have suggested establishing real-time monitoring and disease surveillance systems linked to early warning systems for vector-borne disease outbreaks; promoting crop diversification, water-smart and less labour intensive agricultural operations to mitigate the impacts of climate change on food security and nutrition; implementation of a coal phase-out strategy and accelerated transition to low carbon and renewable energy sources. With updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement due to be submitted by 2020, health should be integrated throughout proposed interventions.

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Dinesh Sharma is the Managing Editor of India Science Wire.

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