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ACP Joins With Other Medical Groups to Fight Health Effects of Climate Change

Not just polar bears but people face threats, coalition says in urging action now

March 24, 2017 (ACP) -- The American College of Physicians has united with other medical organizations to create a powerful coalition committed to educating the public about the risks of climate change and the benefits of protective measures.

ACP joined the coalition to create a unified voice on climate change among medical professionals.

"The time for action is now," said Dr. Nitin S. Damle, ACP's president. "We need to educate patients, physicians, medical students, policy makers, legislators and business leaders on the dire consequences of inaction. We need to mitigate with a reduction in fossil fuel emissions and move to renewable energy such as wind and solar. We need to create financial incentives for the transition, and we need to support global agreements like the Paris Agreement and the domestic Clean Power Plan."

Members of the coalition, the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health -- representing more than half the doctors in the United States -- agree that human actions, especially the burning of fossil fuels, are the main contributors to the rapid warming of the Earth.

"The resulting changes in our climate are creating conditions that harm human health through extreme weather events, reduced air and water quality, increases in infectious and vector-borne diseases, and other mechanisms," according to a consensus statement issued by the coalition. "Climate change threatens the health of every American," especially the poor, the youngest and oldest, pregnant women and other groups, the group added.

In addition to ACP, coalition members include the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Medical Association, American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, American College of Preventive Medicine, National Medical Association, American Podiatric Medical Association, Infectious Diseases Society of America, Society of General Internal Medicine and American Geriatrics Society.

A policy paper issued last year by ACP pointed to research that says climate change poses a "catastrophic risk" to advances in global health that have been attained over the past half-century. "The reality of climate change and our warming planet is unequivocal," ACP declared.

The new coalition, which officially launched March 15, released a 28-page report that day titled "Medical Alert! Climate Change Is Harming Our Health."

Most people are aware of climate change, according to the report, but most still see it "as a faraway threat, in both time and place, and as something that threatens the future of polar bears but not necessarily people."

"The reality, however, is starkly different: Climate change is already causing problems in communities in every region of our nation, and from a doctor's perspective, it's harming our health."

Getting that message out to the public is important because, the coalition noted, only a third of Americans it surveyed can name a single way that climate change harms their health."

To begin to remedy this, all Americans should understand five key points, according to the report. First, it said, there's a scientific consensus about human-caused climate change. Secondly, in communities across the nation, climate change is harming people's health right now.

Damle, who's on the coalition's steering committee, said that the effects of climate change being felt today include "heat-related illness, air pollution and respiratory illness such as COPD and asthma exacerbation, prolonged allergy season, an increase in vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, anaplasma and Babesia infection, in addition to Zika, Chikungunya and dengue." There's also "an increase in waterborne diseases, including E. coli and parasitic infections like giardia and cryptosporidium," he said. "In addition, there are mental health effects of anxiety and depression from extreme and unpredictable weather events, such as flooding and hurricanes."

Indeed, reports published in 2014 and 2015 reported that high numbers of allergists, thoracic specialists and members of the National Medical Association believed their patients were suffering from the effects of climate change. More than three-fourths of the doctors surveyed said that climate-change was affecting their patients in terms of air-pollution-related symptoms, and 63 percent pointed to allergic symptoms linked to climate change.

The third key point to remember, according to the coalition report, is that the health of any American can be harmed by climate change, but some face a greater risk than others. Groups that are in special jeopardy, it said, include children, student athletes, pregnant women, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses and allergies, and the poor.

Fourth, without concerted action, these harms to people's health are going to get much worse. The fifth point, described in the report as "the most important action we can take to protect our health," is the need to reduce heat-trapping pollution. That means "reducing energy waste and accelerating the inevitable transition to clean renewable energy," something that is "well within our power to accomplish," the report said.

The coalition urges the medical community to take steps to help alleviate the health threats of climate change. Specifically, "doctors can educate the public and policymakers to assure they understand the importance of action," it said. "Vital health infrastructure must be prepared so health is protected from the risks of climate change, including floods and storms. Health institutions should focus on reducing energy use, relying on clean energy to the extent possible, and avoiding negative impacts on the environment."

In addition, the report said, "doctors can also encourage medical education at all levels to incorporate climate change-related coursework into curricula."

More Information

The report, "Medical Alert! Climate Change Is Harming Our Health," and other information on the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health and its efforts are available on the group's website.

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