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What Can Health Professionals Learn from Events Like Hurricane Harvey?

By Tim Kelly
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The American Public Health Association (APHA) has identified 2017 as the Year of Climate Change and Health.  APHA has further assigned each month of 2017 a different theme reflecting the impacts climate change has for health and wellbeing.  At this critical time for the future of climate change politics and our society, these designations are never more timely and relevant.  September’s theme is Extreme Weather and with the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston and the fears and warnings associated with the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma on Florida’s shores, this specific theme is also never more prescient.

While climate scientists consistently warn against ascribing individual extreme weather events to climate change, as Houston was inundated by flood waters by a hurricane that intensified as it approached Texas’s coastline many scientists noted the role climate change can play in increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes.  Hurricane Harvey itself was in fact so unique and destructive because it intensified as it approached Houston due to Gulf of Mexico waters that were warmer than in the past.

But while it is important to remain sensitive to the suffering and loss wrought by events like Harvey, it is equally important- and our responsibility as health professionals and as a society more broadly- to at the same time reflect, discuss, and learn the lessons of events such as these, in order to lessen the prospect of future suffering.  With evidence of increases in the intensity and frequency of major extreme weather events reflecting scientific predictions of climate change, health professionals in particular are compelled to shed light on these linkages and the impacts they have for health.  To do so, by educating the public and advocating among policymakers, is to engage in an ultimate act of prevention that seeks to address climate change at its source: our attitudes and resultant individual and societal-level behaviors that produce unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Impacts

The health impacts associated with an event like Harvey are widespread and interrelated, and highlight the relevance of health professional engagement on climate solutions.  These impacts and strategies for building resilience and supporting individuals and communities in times of weather crises are highlighted in ecoAmerica's Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance report, produced in collaboration with the American Psychological Association.  For example, as discussed in the report, injuries and other impacts to physical health during and in the aftermath of such events can lead to mental health impacts, such as depression, while breakdowns in social cohesion, community functioning, loss of property, and disruptions in community infrastructure can lead to and compound the effect of stressful experiences as well.  Mental health impacts can in turn lead to or worsen physical health impacts through changes in patterns of sleep, eating, and exercise and reduced immune function.

         Source: Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, 2017, ecoAmerica

These above impacts can be worsened when they occur among populations that were in a position of enhanced vulnerability before an extreme weather event strikes.  For example, while studies measuring wellbeing and resilience before and after extreme weather events are limited due to the unpredictability of these events, in a study of a low income young female population in post-Katrina New Orleans, levels of social support before and after the storm predicted levels of health and wellbeing following the event.  Populations vulnerable due to low income status, old age, pre-existing medical conditions or disability may also be disproportionately impacted by reduced mobility and ability to avoid or cope with extreme weather impacts.  And each of these above impacts are, of course, enhanced when they occur in conjunction with other impacts of extreme rainfall and flooding, such as exposure to chemicals and pathogens in contaminated flood waters and food supplies and the potential for the spread of mold and infectious disease following such events.

Resources

Given the credibility health professionals possess on knowledge relating to the health impacts of extreme weather events, all they need are the tools and resources to amplify their voice, lead by example, and elucidate the connections between these events and climate change.  As we were reminded by ecoAmerica blog contributor Miranda Spencer following extreme flooding in North Carolina related to Hurricane Matthew last fall, health professionals have several opportunities to make a difference.  According to Miranda, these include:

  • If you are doctor or nurse treating people for a condition related to a storm or flood, this may be a perfect pivot to talk to your patients about climate change: building awareness of its effects on a personal and local level, and how people can protect both their own health and our climate through positive behavior changes.
  • If you are a hospital administrator, take a look at ways to green up your everyday operations through money-saving practices – such as energy efficiency and waste reduction. Review  and check the systems you have in place for carrying on during storms, such as back-up generators and extra water supplies.
  • Share stories and ideas with your peers in the health care professions on how to respond to issues related to large storms, and help them to make the connections between climate, weather, and health solutions in their work and with the people they serve.
  • If you’re in public health, you can spend a few hours working with boards or committees involved with climate change preparation. For example, since Hurricane Katrina touched New Orleans, the city has revised its master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection to account for ongoing sea level rise. Expert help is needed.
  • Knowledgeable professionals can also speak out at public hearings and write letters to the editor or op-eds sharing medical knowledge that links extreme weather with health effects. You can also provide tips for taking actions that help protect both health and climate.

Several ecoAmerica research reports offer insightful information and proven guidance to aid health professionals in facilitating such discussions. These guides include Climate for Health’s Let’s Talk Health & Climate: Communication Guidance for Health Professionals, Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change (written in collaboration with the American Psychological Association), and Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance referenced above.  Webinars on these topics are also available.  On September 20th, Climate for Health in collaboration with the American Psychological Association will be hosting a webinar focusing on Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, our most recent report.

Health professionals possess the credibility and, more than ever, the appropriate tools to be leaders in discussions on climate solutions.  As recent events have shown, the need for their leadership has never been more necessary.

Tim Kelly is the Climate for Health Program Manager at ecoAmerica.  He has over six years of experience working within the health sector conducting outreach and education on the impacts of environment on our health.  If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact Tim at timk@ecoamerica.org.