Public health agencies are key players in the fight against the climate

Opioids. Influenza. Food recalls. State and local public health agencies constantly have their hands full with emerging and long-standing health crises. At the same time, agencies never have enough staff or money. Funding cuts have contributed to a 3 percent decrease in the workforce of state health agencies from 2012 to 2016 and a 5% decrease in environmental health activities (for example, disease surveillance and radiation monitoring) in state agencies from 2010 to 2016.

Climate change may seem irrelevant in the face of these challenges. But rising temperatures, seasonal changes and extreme weather are already harm our health in ways big and small, and the worst is yet to come. Because public health professionals take care of prevent health problems, they don’t have the luxury of ignoring the impacts of climate change on our water, air, food and bodies. This is all the more true as many current health problems, including disparities in exposure to pollution and access to care, will be more serious in a warmer world.

Fortunately, health agencies across the country are taking action to protect Americans from the effects of climate change. According to a new report American Public Health Association, state and city public health agencies are successfully using funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and CDC Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) to identify and protect people and climate sensitive communities.

Climate and health adaptation in action

The report is based on a previous examination BRACE Fellows by examining the successes and challenges of nine states: Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York State, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin . Here are some of the takeaways:

  • BRACE recipients create cool data tools. Before you can develop a health solution to climate change, you need to understand who might be affected the most. It sounds obvious, but it’s not easy. A community’s vulnerability to climate change depends on its physical location, existing health conditions, and a wide range of demographic, socioeconomic and cultural factors. To better manage climate vulnerabilities, agencies like the Massachusetts Department of Health are developing mapping tools that allow users to visualize and analyze contributors to climate vulnerability.

Boston climate vulnerability map showing hospitals, highways, poverty levels, and areas susceptible to flooding during hurricanes

Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Office of Environmental Health

  • BRACE fellows learn from each other. Collaboration and information sharing help resource-strapped public health officials do more with less. In New Hampshire, for example, Department of Health and Human Services staff worked with experts from other BRACE New England states to examine the link between extreme heat and hospitalizations and to develop ways to protect people from the heat.
  • Adaptation to climate is local and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As the Maryland Department of Health has discovered, the concerns and priorities of community members do not always match the results of scientific analyzes. The state works directly with communities to better meet their needs, including developing the right communication tools to disseminate information before, during and after disasters.
  • CDC funding helps, but it’s a drop in the ocean. Almost all states cited financial and personnel constraints as an obstacle to more effective action. In Oregon, for example, “more than a quarter of local state health departments reported having only partial to minimal capacity to identify and prevent environmental health hazards.” And in North Carolina, the catastrophic 2016 flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew delayed implementation of heat and forest fire responses in favor of more immediate recovery needs.

Evacuation of Cape Fear Valley Hospital during Hurricane Matthew, 2016

U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Shaw, 382nd Public Affairs Detachment, Creative Commons / CC BY 2.0

Are States’ Climate and Health Adaptation Plans Working?

Assessment is an important part of any climate and health adaptation plan. In other words, are actions taken by health agencies to protect people from climate change reducing illness and death? Stay tuned for the answer, as most grantees are currently developing their evaluation plans.

If the latest version of Health security readiness index is an indication, however, BRACE beneficiaries are quite prepared for weather disasters, epidemics and other climate related and non-climate related disasters. In 2017, the nine states described in the APHA report were above the national average for health security preparedness, and seven of the nine states had increased their level of preparedness compared to the previous year.

Climate change is here and now when it comes to our health. Public health officials urgently need to identify vulnerable communities, develop plans and policies to address climate-related health challenges, and assess these plans and policies in a timely manner.

You want to know more ? To verify this webinar or read the American Public Health Association report full report here.