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Earth Day: How to Spin Toward a Healthier, Greener Planet

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By Susan Blumenthal, M.D., and Yi-An Ko

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day. This year, the Earth Day Network has launched a global digital campaign -- The Faces of Global Climate Change -- that uses social media to highlight in photos the impact of climate change worldwide. These photos will document how far-reaching the impacts of climate change are on human life, particularly on our health.

As the global digital campaign underscores, human health is influenced by many biological, socioeconomic, political and geographic factors. Changes in temperature, sea levels, and air quality have significant effects.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that global temperature increases led to approximately 150,000 deaths and the loss of 5.5 million disability-adjusted life years in 2000 alone, with rates expected to double by 2020. During summer heat waves across Eastern Europe and Russia in 2010, high temperatures led to massive wild fires, the destruction of crops, and sadly, 55,000 deaths. These heat waves threaten populations around the world with heat stroke as well as cardiac and respiratory complications that are anticipated to increase in severity and frequency as average temperatures continue to rise in the years ahead.

Global warming has also been linked with the emergence of 39 new or reemerging diseases since the 1960s, according to the WHO. Mosquitoes -- the most common disease vectors that spread illnesses such as malaria, dengue, West Nile encephalitis, and yellow fever -- have been found moving across the equator as global temperatures rise. Today, approximately 660,000 people a year die from malaria. If global temperatures were to increase by 3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, mosquito proliferation would place millions of people at risk for acquiring the disease.

The Earth's water supply has also been profoundly affected by global warming. Water is essential for human life. However, the 0.07-inch annual rise in global sea levels is threatening water supplies by decreasing fresh water availability, increasing water temperatures and altering precipitation patterns. With more than 1 billion people worldwide in need of safe drinking water and 2.6 billion without access to adequate sanitation, global warming can be extremely dangerous to the health of many. At least 2 million people, most of them children, die each year from waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, guinea worm and hepatitis as well as vector-borne illnesses such as malaria and West Nile virus. In fact, it is estimated that more than half of the hospital beds in the developing world are occupied by people suffering from preventable diseases caused by unsafe water and inadequate sanitation. In the United States, more than 750,000 cases of infectious disease outbreaks between 1980 and 1996 have been linked to unsafe drinking water.

Changes to the quality and distribution of water due to extreme weather events keep people from carrying out activities of their daily life, disrupt food production, destroy botanical sources for natural medicines, and incapacitate sewage systems. For example, flooding as a result of climate change has been linked to increases in rodent-borne illnesses such as plague, tularemia, leptospirosis, and viral hemorrhagic diseases. With massive flooding occurring in countries including Nigeria, Pakistan, China, and other nations around the world, health consequences of these events linger long after the waters abate. Extreme weather events can disrupt water supply, leading to malnutrition and food poisoning, increased morbidity and mortality from diarrheal diseases, and mental health problems as well. The consequences of this include population displacement, changes in acute and chronic disease patterns and management, as well as regional conflicts over access to water. Water remains a national security issue today, with access to arable land and clean water as continuing source of conflict as was the case with Darfur.

Global warming also diminishes air quality affecting our health. Air pollution, found to be linked to 2 million deaths worldwide, is not only a contributor to global warming but is worsened by it. Research on the effects of air pollution suggests that a 1.8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature could increase mortality rates worldwide by an additional 21,600 deaths. Furthermore, diseases like lung cancer, heart disease, asthma and allergies (the rates of which have quadrupled in the U.S. since 1980) are linked in part to air pollution worsened by smog formation. Ground-level ozone formation emanating from motor vehicle emissions contributes to increased particulate matter in the atmosphere, pollen and mold, and human exposure to greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide with damaging effects to health.

The bottom line: Climate change is affecting the health of the planet and its people. And that is why the global community must act.

Public health preparedness must be strengthened, including building public health infrastructure, reinforcing contingency planning with advanced climate modeling and environmental public health tracking. Increased investments in research are needed to explore the relationship between climate change and health in order to enhance our ability to respond to emerging health threats. This also means increasing investments in health professional training, developing and implementing government and private sector response plans, and building the communication networks to enhance rapid response to the health crises caused by climate related events.

This year, as we commemorate Earth Day, each one of us has an important role to play in protecting planet Earth and safeguarding human health. As The Faces of Global Climate Change campaign reveals, every corner of the Earth is affected. That's why today is an opportunity to commit ourselves to the fight against global warming. Collaboration is urgently needed across governments, NGOs, businesses, communities, and individuals to ensure a healthier planet and a greener, cleaner world.

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is the public health editor of The Huffington Post. She is a senior fellow in health policy at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., a clinical professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, and chair of the Global Health Program at the Meridian International Center. Dr. Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the federal government in the administrations of four U.S. presidents, including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women's Health, and as senior global health advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also served as a White House advisor on health. Prior to these positions, Dr. Blumenthal was chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research and chair of the Health and Behavior Coordinating Committee at the National Institutes of Health. She has chaired numerous national and global commissions and conferences and is the author of many scientific publications. Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the U.S. Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. Named by the New York Times, the National Library of Medicine and the Medical Herald as one of the most influential women in medicine, Dr. Blumenthal is the recipient of the 2009 Health Leader of the Year Award from the Commissioned Officers Association and was named a Rock Star of Science by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation.

Yi-An Ko is a dual-degree MBA/MPA student from the Wharton School of Business and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government focusing on health care management and policy.

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