Communicating health issues in climate change


guest column:Peter Makwanya

THE health component is the most fundamental aspect of human well-being, but it is often ignored or back-grounded when talking about climate change impacts. This essential community of practice is not normally a favourite of journalists reporting on climate change issues. One wonders if it’s the lack of expertise to report on critical health issues or just the fear of handling information which requires specific causes and effects rather than bordering on assumptions. As a result, health issues in climate change are essentially scaring, hence they are often overlooked, ignored or just given a blanket statement.

Due to the fear of misrepresenting information about issues that require medical expertise and approval, not many journalists are prepared to disseminate health-related information on climate change. Climate change and climate-related disasters affect a wide range of health issues, including but not limited to the following: water-borne diseases, diarrhoea, dysentery, poor water and sanitation, malnutrition or fever, among others. It has always been a challenge to present health information which requires expert statistical data layout, medical jargon mixed with complex climate -change technical discourse, making the whole process potentially scaring for journalists.

Climate change has contributed to an increase in the number and intensity of natural disasters, causing an upsurge of water-borne diseases, vector-borne and other infectious diseases, thereby affecting a broad network of health-related matters. Climate-related disasters have affected food production and security, thereby impacting negatively on nutritional aspects and concerns. Accessibility and availability of health services are normally affected when people in disaster areas need healthcare most. In this regard, communities also lack sufficient knowledge and awareness of climate change and health issues. Therefore, the communities have two necessary obstacles to negotiate, first they lack sufficient knowledge and access to climate change information which is user friendly, and secondly they are faced with health issues that always require medical expertise and literacy.

Impacts of natural disasters on human health can be significantly reduced if response plans are more effective than what they appear to be right now. A wide range of health-related preventive measures have to be implemented at community, provincial and national levels, feeding into each other, in order to prepare and respond to natural disasters. Intervention and recovery activities undertaken during and after natural disasters often lack strong focus on health issues and the well-being of the affected. Therefore, effective implementation of healthcare related to natural disasters need to be enhanced. More health-specific guidance and preparation for the impacts of climate change are needed to sufficiently orient the people and stakeholders concerned.

The health of the world’s population is at risk as a result of climate change impacts, hence communities need more expert-guided information from development practitioners and journalists to use for handling climate situations.

Climate change impacts on health include higher levels of certain air pollutants, increased transmission of diseases ranging from disaster-contaminated and polluted water, increased vector-borne diseases and disruption of health services. Absence of recovery systems and coping mechanisms, leading to many deaths especially in developing countries with poor health-delivery systems and lack of preparedness to deal with both disasters and health concerns at the same time. That is why health-related communication and reporting gaps should be filled so that victims of climate-related natural disasters would not suffer from three fronts, namely disaster impacts, health scares and lack of helpful and timely information.

During disasters, many people die of diarrhoea, malnutrition, contaminated and polluted water, poor hygiene, injuries and climatic-related shocks. What is normally reported appropriately is where the disaster took place, its impacts on infrastructure and livestock while human casualties are deliberately minimised even if they are many. The state of the health of survivors and outbreaks are normally backgrounded and overshadowed by disaster impacts. If the disaster takes place in a developing country, then appeals for more donations and financial resources from developed countries and international donors would be reported more than human casualties.

Frequent climate-related droughts resulting in crop failures and water scarcities, leading to malnutrition are health-related issues which require more attention than politics. More cases of epidemics like cholera which is associated with floods is normally reported, maybe due to a number of people dying.

It is also very significant and critical for developing countries’ National Adaptation Plans (NAP) to factor in the health impacts of climate change. When people are displaced due to flooding and other related natural disasters they automatically become homeless, which becomes a humanitarian crisis where chances of contracting diseases are accelerated. When people are displaced, they are evacuated and accommodated in tents with no proper ablution facilities which also becomes a health scare impacting heavily on their health, privacy and dignity.

Normally the focus is not on these serious issues but the visiting politician would receive prominent media coverage more than the disaster and the affected.

Government departments overseeing health programmes need to prioritise the health impacts of climate change and strive to educate affected communities on matters of hygiene and water sanitation as well as improved waste management. Local communities’ knowledge and understanding of climate change and its health related effects need to be enhanced as well. Community-based actions to communicate information about climate change and behavioural changes needed to tackle climate related fevers should be implemented appropriately through relevant health communication tools and strategies.

What should increasingly be realised is that, the term climate change continues to remain difficult for communities to understand, hence context-specific communication is required to sufficiently engage communities continuously. Climate- related health communication which is therapeutic should influence decision making for behavioural changes in this regard.

Most importantly, rarely do we hear reports on the counselling and rehabilitation of victims of natural disasters. The aftermaths of disasters are associated with traumatic experiences which require sufficient counselling and also a wide range of injuries which require treatment and rehabilitation. All these need to be communicated appropriately in a conducive environment that has all the ingredients for recovery.