No Vaccine for Climate Change

Healthy Energy Initiative India, Health Care without Harm, Climate Trends and Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA) recently released a guidebook titled “No Vaccine for Climate Change – A Communication Guide on Climate and Health for the Healthcare Professionals in India”, to prepare healthcare workers for conversations on climate change and its effects on health among various communities like patients, media and policymakers.

At the launch of the guidebook authored by Shailendra Yashwant of CANSA, a panel discussion Role of Healthcare Professionals on Action and Advocacy around Climate Change”, on 15 June 2021, had eminent doctors working in public health among the panellists and participants from healthcare industry and civil society organizations working in public health and welfare.

The discussion centred around the premise that climate change impacts public health, and that the voices of healthcare professionals must be heard urgently. In the past, health professionals fought for universal access to safe water, sanitation; today they fight for the air we breathe. When healthcare professionals raise their voices, they bring credibility to the cause and help people recognise the strong linkages between air pollution, climate change and human health.

The opening remarks by Sanjay Vashist, Director of CANSA were, “Human health is mentioned as a priority in 59% of countries’ national climate adaptation commitments under the Paris Agreement, but only 0.5% of multilateral climate finance targets health projects.”

Climate change impacts the health sector in so many ways – the heat stress due to global warming causes many diseases, apart from increasing the body’s vulnerability to disease. Climate related disasters such as landslides, storms, wildfires, all affect mental health, cause extreme mental trauma and depression, and these affect vulnerable populations more.  When we make investments for a sustainable future, we need to consider investing in health as healthy economic sectors are directly linked to a health of individuals and the society at large, he said.

Dr Arvind Kumar, Founder Trustee of Lung Care Foundation and Doctors for Clean Air and Climate Action, asked a rhetorical question – “Why should we doctors be needing to write a prescription for climate change? Why should we care about air pollution?”

And goes on to explain that when doctors write a prescription for health issues, they need to understand its causes – one major cause is air pollution, which incidentally is also a cause for climate change. With the pandemics, people in polluted areas are more susceptible.

As a surgeon operating on patients, he found that the lungs of city dwellers, including teenagers, had black deposits. He pointed out how the air we breathe in cities affects human health and climate as well – the drivers of both being the same. A human being breathes about 25,000 times a day; now the air has not only oxygen but also toxic materials which are cancer-causing. It is akin to being a chain smoker. There is no non-smoker in a polluted city, not even new born babies.

Dr Arvind Kumar declares: “We are all under attack. And it is not just the lungs that are affected but all organs of the body.”

“Clean air is a human right. If we don’t act now millions die; therefore, the time to act is now. We need to focus on cleaning air by striking at the sources of pollution. The one source of pollution is the rampant use of fossil fuels and change to cleaner sources of energy. If we don’t stop use of fossil fuel, human beings will continue to die and children – our most precious asset – will continue to die”, was his powerful warning.

Dr Ravikant Singh, Founder of Doctors For You, a specialist in medical emergencies processes, could clearly see the link between climate change and death. “We have had 9 emergencies in one year, all directly and indirectly related to climate change. Covid19 has been a good reminder that the health sector was neglected. It has brought back the focus on the importance of the health sector,” he said. He prescribed three things to be done urgently – 1. Inclusion of impact of climate change on health in medical and nursing curriculum. 2. The primary and secondary health sector must be strengthened especially in high-risk zones, with bigger health centres. 3. A gap assessment of health facilities in these vulnerable areas needs to be conducted – health facilities are in low lying areas – badly planned; this flood, even fish were found swimming in the premises of Nalanda college. The old health facilities are prone to collapsing in times of climate related disasters, and for doctors to be able to handle emergencies, the system needs to be robust.

Dr Mauli Mehta, President of Medical Students Association of India is a doctor interning in Ahmedabad. As a representative of young medical health professionals, she saw that climate change is an important determinant of health. She saw the need for doctors to see the link between climate change and health and be able to connect the dots if they are to take action and raise their voices against determinants of climate change.

The Chhattisgarh State Nodal Officer, Kamlesh Jain, said that the state participated in the national program on climate change and human health where they pledged to clean the air. They have held sensitization workshops, where 70,000 community health volunteers and 20,000 panchayat raj members have undergone training on an integrated approach to increasing resilience in health sector due to climate change impact in the state.  

Dr Veena V., State Nodal Officer, Karnataka, referred to 5 climate sensitive illnesses – malaria, dengue, respiratory infections, acute gastro, malnutrition, and how the state action plan governing body and district nodal officers are responsible for strengthening the infrastructure at the state and district level to combat these. They conducted a vulnerability needs assessment related to climate change and health. All healthcare facilities are being rendered climate resilient. The task force is meeting to draft health sector plan for air and water pollution, and timely warning systems alerts to health professionals and local communities.

Dr Manu M.S., State Nodal Officer, Kerala, shared the state climate action plan to strengthen capacity of healthcare systems, strengthen health preparedness and response, develop partnerships with other missions and ensure health is adequately represented in climate change agenda, strengthen state research capacity to fill evidence gap on climate change impact on human health. To build climate resilient health system, they have training and capacity building, with a decentralised plan. Soon the health system will be joining the race to zero and take the lead in climate resilience, with focus on addressing the poorest of the poor in the relief measures.

By Purnima Joshi , Communications Associate, CANSA