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Fundación para el Desarrollo Integral del Pacífico
Foundation for the Integral Development of the Colombian Pacific Region


Climate Change & Health: human issues

Regardless of what you call her (“Mother Earth”, ”Terra”, ”Gaia”, ”Pachamama”), the Earth has been here over 4.5 billion years; that is 22.800 times than our very own existence. She doesn´t really need us, but we need her more than we could imagine; our future certainly depends on her. Our actions are hurting her, but the truth is that the more the damage we inflict on her, the more the consequences for us.

If Earth is unhealthy, mankind is not healthy either. Whether people are healthy or not, is determined by their circumstances and environment. Hence, changes in the greenhouse gas concentrations and other drivers alter the global climate and bring a countless number of health consequences for the human beings.

For instance, environmental consequences of climate change, such as extreme heat waves, rising sea-levels (caused by global warming and melting of the poles), changes in the patterns of precipitation, affect directly and indirectly the physical, social, and psychological health of humans. For example, people living in high-risk areas for extreme weather events have a higher probability for physical and mental stress.

Extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Climate change also affect air quality through several ways. The increase of concentrations of ozone, the proliferation of fine particles and dust, and the production of allergen components are some of these ways. Some of these pollutants can directly cause respiratory disease and aggravate the existing epidemiological conditions.

It has also been well documented, that exposure to some heavy metals and chemicals, such as lead or mercury, has serious effects on human development, including the reduction in IQ, changes in puberty for the disruption on the endocrine functions, birth defects, and fetal loss. In addition, although the development and causes of all cancers are not completely understood, exhibition to severe UV rays and temperature, increases the risk of skin cancer and cataracts, and the rise in concentrations of certain air pollutants increases the risk of lung cancer.

Nutritious food is a basic need of humans; not getting sufficient calories, nor the right macronutrients and micronutrients, can result in illness and death. In this sense, food can also be a source of foodborne illnesses, consequential from eating food in poor condition or contaminated with pathological agents, or toxic substances. Changes in temperature and precipitations can destroy crops, affect the transportation conditions of food, and cause flooding, drought, and wildfires that can contaminate crops and fisheries with metals and chemicals.

In the same way, increases in water temperatures will alter, for example, timing and location of Vibrio vulnificus growth (a bacterium), increasing the risk of waterborne illness, which manifests itself through diarrhea and intestinal illnes, wound and bloodstream infections or even death.

Vectorborne and zoonotic diseases (VBZD) dissemination are also a consequence of climate change. Many VBZD, such as avian flu, malaria, yellow fever, dengue, and murine typhus, are climate sensitive, and it is well known that ecological shifts associated with climate change are expected to impact the distribution and incidences of these diseases, by mutating the species composition, changing its incubation period, and increasing its population while spreading the vector into new areas.

Climate also plays a role in the human behavior. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley analyzed previous studies on U.S. violent crime rates, historical uprisings and empire collapses and wars, and found a link between violence and heat (as well as extreme rainfall). These results suggest that people can be indirectly affected by extreme climate conditions via external causes, such as homicide, aggressions, self-inflicted injuries (suicide), armed conflicts and delinquency.

Colombia is a tropical country. Due to the favorable latitude conditions, we are not exposed to prolonged and extreme weather seasons. However, it does not make us exempt from certain environmental conditions, such as high precipitation or, on the contrary, drought. In fact, the country is at the mercy of “El Niño” and “La Niña” phenomena, which lastly have been really intense, and have left in their path thousands of victims, not only for the damages, but for the health consequences over some Colombians.

This year, Santiago de Cali (an important city located in the Pacific Region of Colombia) has had increments of between 3 and 5°C above its maximum normal temperature. Bogotá (capital city of Colombia) also recorded the highest temperature in its history: 25.1°C, displacing the 24.9°C recorded in January of 1995 (El Espectador, 2017). These events showed that Colombia is going through a period of very high temperatures. According to the Colombian biologist, Camilo Mora, professor at the University of Hawaii, “many people die of heart attacks due to excess heat, but they are not diagnosed as such” (Blu Radio, 2017)

According to data from the Colombian Health Situation Analysis (MinSalud, 2016), for 2014, the main cause of death in the Colombian population were diseases of the circulatory system, with 146.96 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. The second main cause is the group of “other causes”, where we can find the nutritional deficiencies and chronic respiratory diseases; these group accounts for 19.13 deaths per 100,000 people. Neoplasms are the third, in order, in causing deaths in the country; the 17.99% of the deaths are due to this reason, having malignant tumor of the trachea, bronchi and lung in the fifth place whithin this group. This group of diseases have some degree of correlation with the adverse effects of climate change, as we have annotated above.

During the last years, the country and Latinoamerica faced the resurgence of a new epidemic by the Zika and Chikungunya virus, transmitted by mosquito bites of the genus Aedes. Given the location of the country, we have several preocupations for the VBZD. For example, Dengue is a reemerging and emerging disease, considered as a serious priority public health problem in the regional and national context. With adequate environmental conditions for the transmission of dengue, it is estimated that there is a population at risk of 23,932,381 people, mainly in municipal heads, and that 50% of the cumulative burden of the disease in the country during the period 1999-2010 is persistently targeting 18 endemic municipalities, where there are 10,079,686 people at risk of becoming ill and dying of severe dengue (Padilla et al., 2012).

Climate change is an important issue for Colombians and for the entire world. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations result in increases in temperature, changes in precipitation patterns, increases in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events (such as tornados and hurricanes), and rising sea levels. Climate change endanger our health by affecting all our livelihood, sucha as food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments.

By polluting the Earth, we are not just killing ourselves as humans, but killing all the life in this planet and the beauty of the indomitable nature that surrounds us. It is surprising to know that there is people who does not yet understand the seriousness of this problem, or that even blindly deny that it is a problem. Climate change is impacting each and every one of us on a very personal level that many of us don’t even realize. Certain adverse health effects can be reduced or avoided with sound mitigation and adaptation strategies; appropriate strategies will affect in a positive way, both climate change and the environment, and just like that, affect positively human health.

By Harrison Sandoval

Analista de Identificación y Monitoreo

FDI Pacífico



Blu Radio (Aug. 4th, 2017). Las olas de calor, ¿un arma mortal en Colombia? Retrieved from: http://www.bluradio.com/salud/las-olas-de-calor-seran-un-arma-mortal-en-colombia-segun-investigacion-149281

El Espectador. (Feb. 9th, 2017). ¿Por qué Colombia está rompiendo record de altas temperaturas? Retrieved from: https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/medio-ambiente/por-que-colombia-esta-rompiendo-record-de-altas-temperaturas-articulo-679085

MinSalud – Ministerio de Salud y Protección Social. (Nov. 2016). Análisis de la Situación Salud (ASIS) Colombia, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.minsalud.gov.co/sites/rid/Lists/BibliotecaDigital/RIDE/VS/ED/PSP/asis-colombia-2016.pdf

Padilla, J.C., Rojas, D., Sáenz-Gómez, R. (2012). Dengue en Colombia: Epidemiología de la reemergencia a la hiperendemia. Guías de Impresión Ltda.


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