My Turn: Climate change and the health of our children

For the Monitor
Published: 3/27/2017 12:10:12 AM

As spring unfolds in New Hampshire, there’s a predictable shift in the ailments that bring children into my office every day. Alongside the general excitement about the warming weather and the spring greenery, I see firsthand that global climate change is already taking a toll on my young patients’ health.

On March 15, 11 top U.S. medical societies announced the formation of a new organization, the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, made up of family physicians, pediatricians, obstetricians, allergists, internists and other medical experts. The group also presented a new report, “Medical Alert! Climate Change is Harming Our Health,” which includes scientific evidence and accounts from doctors who see climate change exacerbating a wide range of health issues, including: heart and lung diseases associated with air pollution and wildfires; heat-related health dangers; the spread of infectious disease; and flood and extreme weather-related physical and mental health problems.

The new report affirmed that climate change is a major health threat – and that children are especially vulnerable to these impacts. As a pediatrician and a mom, this is troubling to me. But it’s not surprising.

Take Lyme disease, which is highlighted in the report as a vector-borne disease that is exacerbated by climate change. I diagnose and treat many patients with Lyme disease, from toddlers to teenagers. I see ticks emerging well before spring and continue to see tick bites and Lyme disease into the winter. I spend a lot of time talking with worried parents about how to best avoid ticks, and the importance of checking for ticks and monitoring for signs of Lyme disease. Climate change is part of this problem, because rising temperatures have given deer ticks a more sustainable habitat here in the Granite State. We are already experiencing the northern range expansion of Lyme disease, right in our own backyards.

Asthma is another example of how climate change will harm our kids. Despite our largely rural character, New Hampshire has high asthma rates. Nationally, 8.6 percent of children suffer from asthma, but in New Hampshire, 10.6 percent of our children have asthma. Asthma costs New Hampshire an estimated $188 million (in 2014 dollars) each year. These costs are due to direct medical costs and lost wages due to asthma-related absenteeism. Among children ages 0-17, costs for medical care and parents’ lost wages are an estimated $32 million. An estimated 30 percent of these costs ($9.6 million) are attributable to outdoor air quality. Climate change stands to worsen this epidemic-scale health problem, because it will make smog, pollen season and heat waves worse. All of those things trigger asthma attacks.

I routinely treat children who have asthma. I see that when smog or pollen levels are bad in my community, that makes my patients’ symptoms worse, they miss more school and activities, and their parents miss work. We have to use additional or stronger medicine to control their disease. This creates a burden for the child and the family, and adds cost to medical care.

I am also concerned about how a changing climate will affect the spread of mosquito-borne infections. With warmer temperatures upon us, I need to closely monitor and stay informed about existing viruses such as West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis, as well as emerging mosquito-borne infections in our area. I talk with parents about avoiding mosquito bites and the risks and benefits of various repellants for children as well as balancing the important benefits of venturing outside.

These climate-related health concerns are interfering with my patients’ ability to get outside and enjoy the spring. That’s not just a superficial problem. It also impacts their overall wellness. Research suggests that active, outdoor play and exposure to nature helps improve our children’s health and well-being. I want to see children outside, playing, experiencing the natural world and maintaining active lifestyles, while minimizing their exposure to harmful air pollutants and mosquito and tick-borne infections. It’s part of my prescription for good health.

As a doctor, there are limited prevention measures and medications that I have to address the climate-related health problems I am seeing in my patients today. That’s why, as a health care provider and a mom, I support a longer-term outlook to minimize these burdens in the future. I support bold solutions to the climate crisis, for the health and well-being of my children, and yours.

(Dr. Elizabeth Cramer is a pediatrician at Concord Pediatrics and is a member of Moms Clean Air Force.)

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