New Health Group Pledges to Fight Climate Change Threats

AAFP Joins Launch of Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health Campaign

March 20, 2017 03:05 pm Michael Laff Washington, D.C. –

Climate change is a growing threat to public health, so a new public health advocacy group that includes the AAFP and other primary care organizations has pledged to counter its harmful effects.

Mona Sarfaty, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, discusses the effects of climate change on public health during a recent panel discussion.

The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health(medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org) released a report on March 15 titled Medical Alert! Climate Change Is Harming Our Health(medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org) that warns about health hazards associated with climate change, including the spread of infectious diseases and injuries due to increasingly violent weather. A panel of physicians and public health experts spoke during an event here marking the report's release.

"The danger of climate change is a danger to the health of every American," said consortium director Mona Sarfaty, M.D., M.P.H., who moderated the event. "Americans are not aware that it is harming our health."

Statistics bear out that statement. Only 32 percent of Americans in a recent survey could identify one way that climate change is affecting health, according to the report, but two out of three physicians think climate change is relevant to patient care. The most important issues these physicians cite are poor air quality, a longer allergy season and injuries caused by storms.

Story Highlights
  • A new report from the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health warns of the health hazards associated with climate change, including the spread of infectious diseases and injuries due to increasingly violent weather.
  • Only 32 percent of Americans in a recent survey could identify one way that climate change is affecting health, but two out of three physicians think climate change is relevant to patient care, according to the report.
  • Survey respondents cited primary care physicians as a reliable source of information about the health effects of climate change.

Physicians are a crucial part of this message. Individuals who responded to the survey said their primary care physician is a reliable source of information about the health effects of climate change. The AAFP is one of several physician associations that joined the consortium to raise public awareness of the issue and educate policymakers.

Other members are the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology; American Academy of Pediatrics; American College of Physicians; American College of Preventive Medicine; American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; American Geriatrics Society; AMA; American Podiatric Medical Association; Infectious Diseases Society of America; National Medical Association; and Society of General Internal Medicine.

Sarfaty, a family physician, outlined the group's advocacy mission. In tandem with the broader scientific community, the consortium will press state and federal legislators to focus on energy efficiency and a transition to clean, renewable energy sources.

"We want to talk about the harmful health effects of climate change," she said. "Clean energy is the key."

The group is looking for physicians(medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org) who want to get active in their communities by speaking about health and climate change with the media and elected officials. In addition, posters, brochures and fact sheets are available for download(medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org) to educate patients about health issues related to climate change.

Samantha Ahdoot, M.D., a pediatrician, spoke during the panel discussion about a consult with a 7-year-old boy who traveled to Chicago in November and returned home with a rash on his chest. His mother had noticed a tick on him, so she took him in for an office visit. Ahdoot said the boy contracted Lyme disease, which previously was very rare in the Midwest during late fall. Ahdoot said another patient, a teenager with allergies, is now taking her medication in February. That is much earlier than normal, reflecting the fact that allergy season has become much longer, leaving people more vulnerable to health risks.

Among the major health risks identified in the report were direct threats such as injuries caused by harsh weather; Lyme disease; Zika, West Nile virus, dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases; sickness caused by contaminated water; and threats to mental health such as depression or anxiety.

On the brighter side, the report noted that some initiatives aimed at reducing the negative consequences of climate change are having positive effects.

For example, a coalition of nine Northeastern states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in 2009. The effort placed regional limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted by power plants, and it introduced a cap-and-trade policy.

A study of the initiative revealed that its work prevented between 300 and 830 early deaths among adults, as well as 35 to 390 nonfatal heart attacks. The total health savings achieved by the initiative was estimated at $5.7 billion.

One attendee asked panelists for their take on the administration's stance on clean air and fuel efficiency rules.

"To go backward on fuel efficiency standards -- it's not an economic issue, it's a health issue," said Jonathan Patz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "To roll back clean air standards is going to harm our health."

Other speakers mentioned that solutions to climate change are identifiable but may depend on public pressure for legislators to make changes.

"Climate change will not be solved with a pill, and we will not be able to shop our way out of it," said Molly Rauch, M.P.H., public health policy director for Moms Clean Air Force.

With multiple public health concerns to address, Rauch said parents have to educate their children about much more than just appropriate screen time and using safety helmets when biking.

"Parents are hungry for that information, and we need that information even if there is no prescription to fix it," Rauch said.

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