Climate Change and Infectious Diseases

Climate Change and Infectious Diseases

What nurses should do to be prepared

By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN
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While you may think about climate change in terms of whether or not you’ll be too warm wearing scrubs if the air conditioning breaks down, your responsibilities as a nurse demand that you change your focus. Government agencies may still not agree on the extent of climate change or what we can do about it, but there is beginning to be consensus about what it might mean to each of us.

In terms of public health, experts tell us that variability in the climate might result in increases in the infectious diseases we can expect. Those diseases spread by insect vectors may be able to expand their horizons and will be vulnerable to exposure. The increases in dengue and yellow fever seen this year in South America may be just one example. As mosquitoes flourish in warm wet areas, so does malaria. Children already burdened by malnutrition in areas suffering political strife, and those living in rural areas, stand to be the most severely hurt.

The Center for Disease Control acknowledges that the world’s climate is “becoming warmer, with more precipitation and weather extremes.”

Violent storms with increased precipitation may produce flooding in coastal areas — witness the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes in the Gulf Region, or the monsoons and cyclones in Asia. And as some areas experience more rain and flooding with increased spores, mold and airborne pollens, other areas become dry and burdened by sandstorms, dust and increases in air pollution. Respiratory infections and asthma rates increase and can be adversely effected either way. Mortality figures rise as heat waves and dust storms affect the dry areas.

The Australian Nursing Journal claims that the lack of response to climate change already claims 150,000 lives and the economic and political reactions following disasters impact the health of survivors. Mortality can be expected to increase through the effect of stronger and longer heat waves.

LSU nurse, disaster reliefWhat does all this mean for you?

Take a look at where you practice and remember the Girl Scout motto: Be Prepared. Think about where your expertise lies and who can benefit from it in an emergency. Look beyond yourself to see where you can offer your services — your municipality, your local hospital, nursing homes, schools, churches or temples may all be ready to accept volunteers with your valuable skills.

Find out how local agencies plan to distribute food and safe water in a crisis, where people will be housed, and how psychological counseling can be accessed by those in need. Can you administer tetanus or Hepatitis A immunizations? Help to triage the injured? Coordinate transportation? With your nursing background you can be counted on to stay calm and use sound clinical judgment.

Form a group at your hospital that reviews how recycling is carried out, or examines the amount of packaging on disposable supplies. Hospitals are a major contributor to the waste stream. Help your administrators understand the value of reducing their use of non-renewable energy sources. Nurses are critical to hospital performance and administrators have a stake in listening to their concerns.

Education is key, and education is what nurses are trained to do well! You may understand the health consequences of climate change better than those actually responsible for disaster planning. Your input may make the difference in forming a plan that can be successful.

Remember, climate change is not just about whether we’re too hot or too cold right now. We need to see the broader picture. How we respond to change is going to make a difference not just for us, but for generations to come.

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, has worked as a nurse since 1979 and has written extensively for various nursing publications, as well as The New York Times.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
World Health Organization:

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