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Pediatricians warn that climate change is harming children’s health

  • September 13, 2019

A new study shows that children bear 88 percent of the burden of diseases linked to climate change.

Pediatricians are sounding the alarm over the way in which climate change disproportionately affects children. A paper published in the journal Pediatrics says that doctors are already seeing the serious effects of climate change on children’s health and that it could reverse the progress made over the past 25 years in reducing child mortality. Right now, children bear 88 percent of the disease burden related to climate change.

Recent climate disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey, Katrina, and Irma have put children’s health at risk, as have increasing extreme temperatures (hot and cold), greater numbers of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes and dangerous viruses such as Zika, more waterborne bacterial infections due to warmer water, and nutritional deficiencies linked to crop instability.

In the face of such challenges, adults tend to be more resilient, whereas children often grow ill and die, particularly in developing nations. In the case of the Zika virus, most prevalent in northeastern Brazil, there is no cure for the microcephaly that results in a baby’s head being too small and the brain underdeveloped.

The paper cites research from Emory University School of Medicine that found that “deaths due to diarrhea, malaria and nutritional deficiencies among children younger than 5 accounted for 38%, 65% and 48% of all global deaths, respectively, in 2015.”

CNN quotes Dr. Mona Sarfaty, director of the program on climate and health at George Mason University. She says the paper’s findings are credible and well-known.

“Children suffer more heat impacts because they spend more time outside. They are more vulnerable to the heat-related increases in air pollution that come from fossil fuel exhaust, because their lungs are still developing. Outdoor play also makes them more prey to insect vectors carrying dangerous infections. The doctors in our societies are seeing these problems today, and they will undoubtedly get worse if we don’t decisively address climate change.”

While Sarfaty raises valid points, I worry that comments like hers will fuel parental fears about allowing children outside, which is pretty much the last thing we need right now. Indoor air quality can be terrible for kids’ health as well, and the less connected with nature kids are, the less inclined they will be inclined to protect it.

The overarching message is clear: If protecting our children is a priority, then that has to go beyond the domestic sphere. It has to be reflected in policies enacted by governments that want strong, healthy leaders for the future. It should be embraced by schools that know the mind-body connection is powerful and that a healthy body is conducive to better learning. It needs to become part of the message given by family doctors and pediatricians, that striving for a lower carbon lifestyle has a real and positive effect on children’s wellbeing.

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