THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION has identified three major areas in which climate change may impact global health: waterborne and foodborne diseases; malnutrition and food availability; and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, which is spreading as mosquitoes follow rising temperatures to new locations.
Sherilee Harper is working to combat these problems. An epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph, Harper has joined an international team to tackle food security, malaria and waterborne disease through a research initiative called the “Indigenous Health Adaption to Climate Change” project. The project works closely with Indigenous peoples and their organizations in the Canadian Arctic, Ugandan Impenetrable Forest and Peruvian Forest.
A\J: What are some of the specific ways climate change is affecting health in Canada?
Sherilee Harper: In the Canadian Arctic, they are already seeing a lot of the impacts of climate change. There are already areas that have experienced three- or four-degree increases in temperature. One area of impact is that of waterborne disease. After a period of heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt there are increased pathogens in the drinking water and we see significant increases in clinic visits for diarrhea after those events. In Southern Canada, we do have a lot of drinking water infrastructure that should protect us against some of those impacts but most Canadians actually rely on untreated groundwater, which is vulnerable to this type of contamination.
Also in Southern Canada, increased numbers of storms, the increased number of hot days in the summer, increased flooding – we can say those are linked to climate change. We are also expecting to see a [northern] extension in the range of ticks that carry Lyme disease, which could increase risk of exposure.
Why is the rise in temperature by three or four degrees so significant?
A 1oC change in average annual temperature could mean the difference between ice and no ice. People who live in the Arctic depend on ice for travel. It’s how they bring food home and put it on the table. They have already reported challenges with that.
It also changes the types of species that are up North. Beavers are entering communities where they have never been before and carry pathogens that cause “beaver fever” (giardiasis). There are different bugs up there now that did not exist there before. These things are all changing because of that few-degree increase in temperature.
Is the funding the Canadian government puts toward climate adaptation shifting the discourse away from prevention?
It is actually the opposite. Climate change adaptation tends to receive less funding than mitigation. Both of them are equally important and both areas are currently underfunded. Adaptation is really important because climate change is already happening. Even if we reduced all of our emissions to zero, we are still expecting the climate to warm over the next few decades.
What is a good way to respond to these threats?
I think the most important thing that people can do is talk about it, and pay attention to what is happening in the Canadian North and abroad. Once you start talking about it, then politicians will listen.
With a federal election coming soon, what is the most important climate-related promise the parties can make?
The Canadian government used to make a lot of information publicly available online that described climate change projections, what types of changes people across Canada might expect to see and how those changes might impact health. In other words, taking the science that the Canadian government has been participating in and translating it for public consumption. I think that making this type of information available to the public would be a really important thing to look for.
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