Climate Change in the Waiting-Room

20. April 2007

Not just skiers and car manufacturers, also physicians slowly start getting concerned about global warming. In Europe, doctors' associations and Co. are still holding back. But in Australia, the topic has become a matter for the boss.

Even if the world climate report of the Climate Council of the United Nations does not exactly tell anything new, the discussion about global warming has changed. Ever since first details of the new report “Confronting Climate Change” were published, everyone is joining in heavy discussions. Now the topic has finally reached the White House in Washington DC – to a point, where the German solar- and wind power industry is warning about the loss of market leadership.

Only the physicians remain silent

One of the essences of the UN: The average temperature of earth is 0.8 degrees higher than before industrialization. Until 2100 it will rise another 0.6 degrees, even if we succeed in strongly decreasing the carbon dioxide emission. Without any efforts in that direction, the temperatures might rise up to 1.5 to 2.5 degrees until the end of the 21st century compared to today. Basis for this calculation is a projection combining 30,000 publications and data collections over the past 20 years. Global warming leads to an increasing number of deaths, injuries and diseases caused by heat waves, floods, droughts and other climate extremes, state the UN scientists. No later than now, the medical world should listen up. But in Germany and many other countries, the physicians remain peculiarly silent, when it comes to climate change.

On the website of the German Medical Association you will find a category “Health and Environment”, but not a single entry about climate change. This is even more remarkable, since the UN explicitly points out Europe as one of the world's regions with an increasing number of heat deaths. The Federal Environmental Agency Germany (UBA) takes the same line. UBA model calculations about regional climate scenarios come to the conclusion, that the annual average temperature in Western Europe will increase another 1.8 to 2.3 degrees Celsius until 2100. This will result in a decrease of average rainfall of up to 30 percent, mainly during the summer months.

“Down under” physicians make the climate a “matter for the boss”

Looking at Middle European climates, this perspective might have a comforting component for some. One look at the “Summer of the Century 2003” should be enough to put those people back into their right mind. As one of the first doctors' organizations ever, the Australian Medical Association has made a rather vague, but nonetheless a Statement on the topic of climate change about 2 years ago. The result was that several specialities have started dealing with the issue. The association of general physicians Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has published a paper now discussing the results of global warming from a physician's point of view. Building on experience with the heat waves over the last years, the Australian physicians made a projection and expect the number of heath deaths of people older than 65 to triple until 2100 – if the CO2 emission is not reduced drastically. This figure applies hypothetically, given that the composition of the population remains identical. If the aging of the population is taken into account, the actual figures of heath deaths could increase tenfold – up to 15,000 deaths in Australia alone every year.

Is the Family Physician soon turning into a Tropical Medicine Specialist?

Infectious diseases cause a lot of worries as well to our colleagues “down under”. The explicit warning goes out, that the transmission zone for Dengue fever will expand to South Australia caused by the rise of average temperatures. Until the end of the century, it is expected to reach the densely populated regions around Sydney, where it might cause epidemics. In Australia, the professionals are discussing now, how to make the Public Health Network more efficient in order to earlier detect the Dengue infection thus being able to dam potential epidemics as quickly as possible.

Infectious diseases and climate change are topics in Europe as well. One of the open questions is, whether the tenfold increase of FSME incidents since 1990 is connected to the climate change. Jutta Klasen of the UBA says: “We have shield ticks in regions now as well such as in Scandinavia, where they were not found in earlier years”. The thesis: During warm winters, less shield ticks, the carrier of FSME, freeze to death. This might aid their radiation. Another discussion comes up time and again, that Malaria returns to Europe, caused by the climate change. The Leishmaniosis is considered another climate sensitive disease, first cases occurred in South France. Currently, anyone interested has to grind out piece by piece of the information, because there is no systematic medical work available covering all coherences.

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