Deadly Climate Change Impact On Human Health: How Prepared Is India?

It’s not uncommon to find many people, including heads of countries, expressing their serious apprehensions in public, about the scary impact of climate change. Just the last year, on November 26, 2018, BBC News captured one of such incidences with the astonishing headline: “Trump on climate change report: I don’t believe it.” The findings of this report have underscored, ‘unchecked global warming would wreak havoc on the US economy.’

Similarly, a few years ago, on September 05, 2014,CNN News 18 quoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi as saying: “Climate has not changed. We have changed. Our habits have changed,’ while answering to a question on climate change. Regardless of the outcome of any split-hair analysis of the rationale behind such statements from the world leaders, such public discourse could trivialize the possible catastrophic impact of climate change on the planet earth.

Be that as it may, that climate change is taking place, carrying all its ill-effects, is real now, without any ambiguity. There is also widespread consensus among the members of the United Nations that ‘the Earth is warming at a rate unprecedented during post hunter-gatherer human existence.’

It is worth noting that way back in 2001, the ‘Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’, further recorded: “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is likely to be attributable to human activities”, most importantly the release of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels.

Several ‘International Agreements’, including the Paris Agreement on Climate Change - all supported by hard scientific data, have called for immediate, quantifiable measures in each country to address the ‘wide-ranging environmental threats, such as ozone depletion and long-range transboundary air pollution.’ Against this backdrop, in this article, I shall focus on the dreadful effect of climate change in the proliferation of a wide-variety of ailments, especially infectious diseases, within a few decades. While doing so, let me first have a quick recap on what is ‘Climate Change’, in a simple language.

Climate Change – a quick recap:

According to the United Nations, ‘Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. Without drastic action today, adapting to these impacts in the future will be more difficult and costly.’

It’s important to note, although, the planet Earth’s climate is constantly changing over geological time, the current period of warming is occurring more rapidly than many past events. Scientists are concerned that the natural fluctuation or variance, is being overtaken by a rapid human-induced warming, as they emit more greenhouse gases. As these gases get trapped in the atmosphere, more heat is retained that has serious implications for the stability of the planet’s climate, even impacting human health with grave consequences. The World Health Organization (W.H.O) has also warned that the health of millions could be threatened by increases in malaria, waterborne disease and malnutrition.

Its impact human health:

The direct and indirect impact of climate change on human health is profound. Before I go into the specifics, let me indicate some of the direct ones, as captured by the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE), University of Washington. This is sans any charts and maps, unlike the usual practice:

  • Increasing temperatures are causing poor air quality that can affect the heart and worsen cardiovascular disease.
  • Increasing exposure to pollen, molds, and air pollution, all of which can worsen allergies and other lung diseases, such as asthma.
  • Changes in the geographic range of disease-carrying insects, such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and other similar ones, which can fast spread many tropical ailments, such as dengue fever and malaria to humans.
  • Increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather and climate events can cause, besides many physical illnesses, several kinds of mental illnesses – increasing both morbidity and mortality.
  • Frequent flooding events and sea level rise can contaminate water with harmful pathogens and chemicals, potentially causing food-borne and waterborne illnesses.
  • Changing weather patterns affect the quality and quantity of nutritious foods with increasing incidence of under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.
  • Additional stress placed on hospital and public health systems, could limit people’s ability to obtain adequate health care during extreme weather events and disease outbreaks.

Most specific and the deadly one:

The World Health Organization (W.H.O) publication - ‘Climate change and human health – Risks and Responses,’ clearly flagged that ‘Changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change.’

Citing a pertinent analogy to explain the reason, it said: “Humans have known that climatic conditions affect epidemic diseases from long before the role of infectious agents was discovered, late in the nineteenth century. Roman aristocrats retreated to hill resorts each summer to avoid malaria. South Asians learnt early that, in high summer, strongly curried foods were less likely to cause diarrhea.”

Would pharma players convert these problems into opportunities?

Curiously, some pharmaceutical investors are researching to fathom potential business opportunities lying underneath the above problem, especially for vaccines and newer antimicrobials. It’s probably a blessing in disguise not just for the drug companies, but also for the general public, considering the following two issues, prevailing in the current scenario:

  • According to W.H.O, Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) is an increasingly serious threat to global public health. It threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi, causing the success of even major surgery and cancer chemotherapy seriously compromised.
  • ‘Pharmaceutical companies are backing away from a growing threat that could kill 10 million people a year by 2050’, reported a July 19, 2018 article. This is because, ‘Antibiotics Aren’t Profitable Enough for Big Pharma to Make More,’ wrote another article, published in Bloomberg Businessweek, on May 3, 2019.

Interestingly, a recent report analyzed and evaluated how this can be done, and which companies will be benefitted most in that process. 

“Climate change to fetch a big business opportunity for pharma”:

As reported on July 25, 2019, Morgan Stanley told investors that climate change will cause an increased prevalence and rapid spread of infectious diseases that may be a boon for some drug companies with big vaccine portfolios. It also highlighted, between 383 million and 725 million more people may be exposed to Zika, dengue and other diseases by 2050, depending on the pace and severity of global warming.

The analysts estimated, especially 7 pharma companies will be critical to fighting infectious diseases brought on by climate change. According to the research note of thebank, ‘the USD 500 billion infectious disease market could see demand for an added USD 125 billion in new vaccines, or as much as USD 200 billion assuming premium pricing for more complex new treatments.’

The top possible gainers:

Identifying the top possible gainers, Morgan Stanley apprised, vaccine development being more difficult and expensive, companies that are already in that business will have an upper hand.

Hence, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline are expected at the top, given their existing pipelines and manufacturing capacity. Takeda and Merck both have vaccines in the works for dengue fever, one of the diseases that climate change is likely to exacerbate. Janssen and Pfizer are both active in the vaccines market, but would need to establish new research programs to take on tropical diseases. ‘Moderna’ is also in a good position because it has demonstrated a potential pipeline for drugs combating the Zika virus., as Morgan Stanley further elaborated.

Nevertheless, Morgan Stanley isn’t the only bank looking at investment opportunities from climate change, on July 24, 2019, Goldman Sachs also, reportedly, said it was hiring a sustainable-finance group that is looking into issues related to sustainability. Thus, on the positive side, climate change could fetch a big business opportunity for many pharma players, across the world.

600 million people at risk for climate change in India:

On June 24, 2019, a reputed national business news daily of India reported, “600 million people at risk: Climate change may soon turn critical in India.” Against this threat, the current public health care infrastructure in the country, continues to remain fragile, as stated in India’s National Health Profile, 13th Issue.

It also states, the cost of treatment has been on the rise in India and it has led to inequity in access to health care services. Intriguingly, the country spends around 1.02 percent of its GDP towards public health, which has remained static to declining over a long period of time. Although, health insurance is a growing segment, it hasn’t taken off fully. Several measures are needed to improve and expand insurance coverage.

Further, according to the report by the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP) in the US, India is facing shortage of 600,000 doctors and 2 million nurses. This report was widely quoted by the Indian media, on April 14, 2019.

These facts give a perspective on what is India’s level of preparedness to address the critical health issues related to climate change, especially the havoc that the dreaded infectious diseases can cause to so many.

Conclusion:

Astute health policy makers, including a large section of the top political echelon of the country are, apparently, aware of various ill effects of climate change. They also seem to be cognizant that these are likely to accelerate the worsening health problems of the population, including infectious diseases, asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Assuming, new and modern drugs will keep coming to help treat these ailments, do we have a functioning and efficient public health infrastructure to grapple with such issues. What about high out of pocket expenditure towards healthcare for a large section of the population, regardless of Ayushman Bharat?

As the (W.H.O) publication - ‘Climate change and human health – Risks and Responses’ recommended, ‘early planning for health is essential to reduce, hopefully avoid, near future and long-term health impacts of global climate change. The optimal solution, however, is in the hands of governments, society and every individual—a commitment to a change in values, to enable a full transition to sustainable development.’

That said, as India is also a signatory to the latest Paris Agreement on Climate Change, can we assume, India will walk the talk to significantly contain its deadly impact on human health? How is India preparing itself to meet this great challenge of Probably it is anybody’s guess, at least, as on date?

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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