by Elsabé Brits
Penicillin, and so many other medicines, are a gift from nature.
Alexander Fleming famously discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928 while working at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School. The antibiotic was produced by a mould in the genus Penicillium that accidentally started growing in a petri dish.
However, it was only during the Second World War that industrial production quickly moved to using fungus from mouldy cantaloupes in America. From these natural beginnings, the Penicillium samples were artificially selected for strains that produce higher volumes of penicillin.
Millions were saved, and are still being saved today. But our relationship with the ecology has since suffered severely. The loss of biodiversity and climate change is threatening not only all life on earth, but also human health.
The British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently published a comment in which they urged the healthcare sector to act.
“Doctors and other health professionals are in a unique and privileged position to influence change as family members, private citizens, clinicians, researchers, advocates, and leaders. However, only a small proportion of health professionals feel able to take effective action in response to the climate crisis, with many citing personal and professional barriers, the most important one being a lack of time.
“Health professionals are first and foremost family members and citizens, and as individuals they can make simple climate friendly behavioural choices regarding how they live and work, what they buy, what they eat, and how they travel.
“As respected community members, health professionals can introduce the climate emergency into conversations, share knowledge, and inform debate. Doing something tangible can give us hope and purpose, provide relief from the growing problem of climate anxiety, make us feel part of a collective whole, and help us square up to the challenge that we face.
“Healthcare contributes 4-5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the National Health Service, 62% of these emissions are from its supply chains and 24% from delivery of care. Health professionals can be institutional leaders who drive decarbonisation in hospitals.” The journal specifically mentions reducing overdiagnosis, eliminating waste, streamlining services, and better managing suppliers and procurement. All of these efforts will bring us closer to making healthcare more sustainable,” the BMJ stated. (It is not known what the greenhouse gas emissions from healthcare in South Africa are.)
The relative importance of individual behaviour changes and system change is often debated. On one side, people advocate making changes, for example, to what we eat, how we travel, and how much energy we use. Others argue against excessive focus on behaviour, believing that even widespread behaviour change will never be enough and that a focus on individual behaviour detracts from the necessary systemic changes. This is a false dichotomy.
Change is needed at both levels. Indeed, the two may be mutually reinforcing; taking individual action can energise people to work for systemic change. Young climate activists are showing everyone the way, wrote the editors of the BMJ.
Covid-19 made us painfully aware of the broken relationship we have had for decades with the environment. An estimated 75% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans have a zoonotic origin, meaning they are caused by pathogens from animal hosts.
As we transform natural habitats to croplands, grazing lands, and cities, we inadvertently increase domesticated and fast-lived species, which thrive in these altered environments and are more likely to harbour pathogens transmissible to humans. In other words, altering natural habitats increases the probability of transmission of zoonotic infectious diseases, according to another article in the BMJ.
But humans are also dependent on healthy natural environments. It is said that climate change is the biggest risk to human health. It is as much an issue for the hospitals, doctors and nurses as it is for governments and environmental researchers.
The World Health Organization says change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
The most vulnerable people – children, the elderly, the poor, and those with underlying health conditions – are at increased risk for health effects from climate change. Climate change also stresses our healthcare infrastructure and delivery systems.
Our task is to see humans and nature, the whole ecosystem as one: one living breathing organism that is interconnected. Climate change is not an isolated problem, it is the problem. It is also a health issue, as much as any other.
- The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of HASA and its members.