Weathering the Health Impact of Climate Change With Social Media Technology

Two new papers point to the pressing need for public and clinical health efforts to pay attention to the effects of climate change when working to prevent and manage chronic conditions. While climate change and its impact on the weather may seem beyond the control of a patients and doctors, services such as Mediclim that provide advance warning of potentially disease-triggering weather events can inform individuals and allow them to take risk-mitigating steps such as staying indoors or taking prophylactic drugs.

In fact, Mediclim has recently unveiled a service for companies that allows them to help protect their employees from the effects of weather and climate change, and save $700 per employee per year at the same time. More on that in a moment, first, here’s what the new studies found:

Air Pollution More Potent than Cocaine?

Researchers from Belgium published a new analysis in The Lancet this week showing that air pollution (defined as high particulate matter count) is responsible for triggering the same number of heart attacks as more commonly controlled risk factors such as physical exertion, alcohol, coffee, infections or even cocaine use.

How is this possible? Part of it is a numbers game: While few folks use cocaine, for example, scads of us are exposed to air pollution. By combining data from 36 previously published studies, the authors calculated the population attributable fraction (PAF) of each of a dozen of exposures.  PAF is the proportion of all events that were caused by any given trigger. The top PAFs:

--Traffic exposure (7.4%)

--Physical exertion (6.2%)

--Alcohol and coffee (5.0% each)

--Air pollution (4.8%)

--Negative emotions (3.9%)

--Anger (3.1%)

--Cocaine, well down on the list, contributed to 0.9% of events.

Climate Change and Children’s Health

Another paper just published in Environmental Health Perspectives, meanwhile, estimates the increased burden of disease on children around the world that is likely to be caused by climate change. They calculate that in 2000 there were 150,000 additional deaths worldwide caused by climate change, 80% of which occurred in children. Conditions contributing to this include the types of floods, famines and political conflicts typically associated with lower resource settings. But they also point to a host of weather-related effects that increase the severity of conditions such as respiratory disease.

The authors conclude by pointing out that need for “enhanced monitoring of current children’s environmental health status, better incorporation of climate change adaptation into existing programs, and new climate-sensitive disease prevention programs that have short- and long-term health co-benefits”

Protecting Health and Finances

At least one thing that both of these papers have in common is that they point to health risks that are exacerbated by weather. Climate change, meanwhile, has the potential to enhance weather conditions that exacerbate chronic disease. Conditions such as asthma or other respiratory conditions, or heart disease can be triggered by changes in weather. The effects of air pollution are also magnified by weather, a slow moving, moist warm weather system may concentrate particulate matter, for example, increasing the risk to heart patients.

Mediclim has long provided weather-warning service that is free to patients. You sign up, let them know what conditions you suffer from, and begin to receive emailed warnings when risky weather is in the forecast. They continue to expand their geographic coverage, as well the types of media they use to send warnings (such as text messaging).

Mediclim has now rolled out a service where they work with employers to provide their weather warnings as part of a company’s health and wellness offerings. For example, warnings can be delivered to work inboxes, and be customizable to plant locations and specific employer needs.

Now imagine the impact that such a program could have if tied to companies listed in Justmeans’ Global 1000. That’s a CSR ranking of publically traded companies with annual revenues of $1 billion or more. That in turn translates into a lot of employees, a lot of chronic conditions such as asthma and heart disease, and a lot of potentially reduced disease and associated health care costs. It would seem like a no-brainer for corporations in the health sector such as Merck (who also enjoys a #1 CSR rating) or Baxter International (ranked #4), or technology companies such as Hewlett-Packard or Intell (ranked #7 and #8 respectively) to incorporate Mediclim's pragmatic health-technology solution. Mediclim estimates that using their warnings can reduce absenteeism costs by around $700 per employee per year. Merck alone has 60,000 employees, so that could equal a potential savings of $42 million, not to mention the potential savings to their health plan.

What other hands-on, practical systems are available today that immediately help reduce the health effects of climate change? Please share your examples!

Photo credit: Mediclim.org