June 19, 2024

Serene Nest

taking care of your health, Our Mission

The Great Equalizer Threatening Everyone’s Health

4 min read

“If you think about Australia, fire rages through, it destroys people’s homes. People are left without homes, insurance takes a long time. All those things happen. Some people literally experience homelessness, have nowhere to go. The water isn’t clean, then they get ill. And so you’ve got all these knock on effects,” from the environmental crisis. That’s how Dr. Emma O’Brien explained one of the many ways that climate change affects people’s health. But, she added, we tend to ignore the signs.

“I don’t know why humans do this, but we’re very good at putting our head in the sand. People went, ‘oh yeah, that’s the science, but it probably won’t happen.‘ It’s like, no, that’s the science, and we can see this,” she said, concerned about the impact of people ignoring or dismissing science, including the impact of climate change on public health.

“What’s happening too is that we’re all experiencing it (climate change). And it’s an equalizer. The pandemic was an equalizer. It showed inequities everywhere,” Dr. O’Brien in an exclusive interview on Electric Ladies Podcast. She is the head of music therapy at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia, and Founder of the Global Scrub Choir, with support from the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN agency. They performed at Climate Week 2023 at the UN.

“The link for us with them is about universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goal number three.” Number three is the goal to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” The other 16 SDGs relate to securing clean water, food security, clean air, gender equity, sustainable cities, marine health, peace and security, etc.

“You cannot have one without the other. And our role is to remind a lot of people that when they’re making policies, they’re talking about human beings,” Dr. O’Brien said.

Climate change as an equalizer, affecting everyone’s health

Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, wildfires, extreme heat. They don’t hit rich people any softer or harder than they do anyone else. “Climate change does have a greater effect on vulnerable people, but it also affects everyone else,” Dr. O’Brien emphasized. A 2023 study by the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center of the Atlantic Council found that extreme heat disproportionately affects women.

Obviously, richer countries have more resources to put infrastructure in place to mitigate, adapt to and minimize potential damages from climate change.

Other health impacts of climate change include, according to O’Brien, “obviously there is asthma, we had thunderstorm asthma here (in Australia), so people died who had never had asthma in their lives and didn’t know what was going on.”

In addition, “people are getting more heart disease,” she said, adding, “I was listening to a really interesting study done in… the United States, where in Chicago, about the pollution on the streets from the cars and how that elevates your blood pressure. And not just at that time. It happens to you as you’re walking past, and it remains elevated for 24 hours.”

Then there’s the impact on animals and nature, and on us humans from our interactions with them.

One Health

That’s why the WHO has the “One Health” initiative, which the U.S. participates in through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “One Health is an approach that recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment,” the CDC website says. “One Health is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach — working at the local, regional, national, and global levels — with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.”

The CDC emphasized that this framework for approaching public health is more important today than ever, “because many factors have changed interactions between people, animals, plants, and our environment.” Those factors are climate change, deforestation, and other “disruptions in environmental conditions and habitats (that) provide new opportunities for diseases to pass to animals.”

Geographic expansion where communities are now being built on land that was previously wild, and increased travel, also increase the frequency, duration and proximity of interactions between humans and animals. “Close contact with animals and their environments provides more opportunities for diseases to pass between animals and people.”

Need to focus on the healthcare system and workers too

O’Brien added that we need to be “considering that impact on our health and wellbeing, and what that then means to the health systems to look after all these people, because that’s what we want to do, you know, that’s what healthcare is there for.”

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Emma O’Brien on Electric Ladies Podcast here.

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