The Varieties of Climate-Driven Medical Risk
Climate change poses both direct and indirect threats to people’s health, often in ways that remain unknown or underappreciated. To stay ahead of these risks will require ensuring continuity of care, not just immediately after emergencies but also over the course of affected people’s life spans.
BOSTON – When natural disasters force people to pack a bag and flee to safety, important items are often forgotten. Following California’s 2007 wildfire season, it was estimated that “at least one family member per household left prescription medication behind during evacuation.” Likewise, when Hurricane Harvey threatened to flood my own mother’s Texas home in August 2017, she forgot to grab her medication in her rush to escape the storm’s path – even though she was normally meticulous when packing for a trip.
With climate change contributing to the increased severity and frequency of such disasters, preventing interruptions in health care and meeting displaced people’s unmet health needs will become an increasingly urgent task. We already know that extreme weather drives migration and statelessness, displacing 21.5 million people per year – 41 people per minute. Hurricanes, cyclones, floods, and wildfires regularly disrupt access to preventative services (such as routine cancer screening), mental-health services, and treatments for chronic diseases. Owing both to a severe drought and civil war, many Syrian refugees lost access to health care and were later found to be suffering from chronic diseases such as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes.
Climate-driven disasters pose both direct and indirect threats to the continuity of health care. According to a 2019 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, the ten-year survival rate of breast cancer patients whose treatment was directly interrupted by Hurricane Katrina was markedly worse than that of a control group.