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Epidemiologist: Climate Change Is A Health Crisis

Epidemiologist Michael McGeehin says climate change threatens public health.
Epidemiology Congress of the Americas
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Epidemiologist Michael McGeehin says climate change threatens public health.
Credit Epidemiology Congress of the Americas
The Florida Channel
Epidemiologist Michael McGeehin says climate change threatens public health.

Climate change isn’t just an environmental problem. If you ask MichaelMcGeehin, climate change is a health crisis.

McGeehin is an epidemiologist who spent more than 30 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He developed the CDC’s Climate Change Program.

McGeehin was recently in Miami for an international epidemiology conference. And he spoke with Health News Florida about how public health is threatened by changing rain patterns, sea level rise and heat waves:

   You’ve talked about some of the things you’ve already been seeing like deaths from heat waves. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

We have seen some of the most severe heat waves globally in the last 20 years than we've ever seen in the history of man.

Now, not all of those heat waves can be attributed to climate change, but the possibility that climate change is exacerbating and causing those heat waves to be worse is very real.

In those heat waves, we are seeing thousands of people dying. In Europe in 2003 we saw 45,000 people die. In the recent heat wave in Russia, the numbers were over 70,000. There was a heat wave in India this past year; we don't have those numbers yet.

But the most striking part of a heat wave is the number of people that die in a relatively brief period of time.

And what about mosquitoes. How does that relate to climate change?

As we change the environment through climate change, we are changing where the mosquito lives. So we are seeing the mosquitoes that carry vector-borne diseases move into areas and populations that they haven't been in before. So in addition to the fact that mosquito-borne diseases cause millions of deaths around the world we're seeing them move into populations that have no immunity to it.

And when you say vector-borne diseases, you mean like we've seen dengue and now we're worried about zika?

Yes, that's what I'm talking about. Mosquito-borne—vector-borne disease is broader than that—but particularly I'm talking about mosquito-borne diseases and the changes you may see in Florida.

What is there to learn from what is happening in Florida?

You're already seeing, during extreme tidal events, you're already seeing flooding in downtown Miami and other areas of Miami, and across the board in Florida and other coastal areas.

You are a city in a state that is a target for changes in vector-borne diseases, so the combination of climate change—and quite frankly quite a bit of globalization—leaves Florida and Miami at a high risk for having additional vector-borne diseases.

What is the relationship between streets flooding somewhere, or a city flooding, and what that means for public health?

Well, streets flooding are something that can be adapted to depending on how badly they flood.

When you're talking about major floods—which if climate change goes unabated we're going to be talking about major floods—when a major flood hits a community, it wipes out all the public health and sanitation advances that have occurred over the last 130 years. And you're back to 1890. You have overcrowding. You have unsafe food. You have unsafe water. You have sewage everywhere. You basically have refugee populations.

And it not only displaces the people; it damages the infrastructure. It's incredibly costly and incredibly damaging.

We are in a state where our governor has banned the use of the phrase,“climate change.” As somebody who's spent a career researching climate change and the relationship to health, what does that make you think?

Well, you can't you can't get rid of a problem by denying it. You can't have an entire government agency or multiple agencies be prohibited from using terms and from investigating something that is on the horizon.

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Sammy Mack
Public radio. Public health. Public policy.