The harsh impacts of climate change are not limited to the environment and doctors agree that climate change continues to threaten the health of Bahamians and others throughout the Caribbean.
Following Hurricane Dorian in 2019, many Bahamians suffered from mental health conditions. According to Dr. William Hamilton, medical focal point for climate change projects in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, today, patients are still coming in with issues associated with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of climate impacts.
“We have children that are still not able to cope in school. If it rains, they literally shut down and so that is one way in which we are seeing climate and health correlation,” Dr. Hamilton, who also worked at the clinic in Marsh Harbour, Abaco during Hurricane Dorian, added.
Earth Medic and Earth Nurse Foundation for Planetary Health Founder Dr. James Hospedales said the impacts of climate change in The Bahamas, which include increased heat, more intense storms, flooding, and sea level rise, have profound implications for health.
Such implications include “more epidemics, more heat illnesses, more injuries after major weather events, food and water borne diseases, and respiratory disease as the Sahara dust worsens,” Dr. Hospedales added.
Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Hopedales were presenters during the Climate and Health Ambassador Training in The Bahamas offered in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Earth Media and Earth Nurse Foundation for Planetary Health and the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education.
One of the goals of the two-day workshop, Dec. 13 – 14, 2022, held simultaneously in New Providence, Abaco and Grand Bahama, was to increase knowledge, skills, and efficacy related to the climate crisis so they may work together, prepare for and respond to climate impacts in their personal lives, their communities and their work spaces.
“This workshop has focused on equipping people with knowledge and skills and waking them up to the threat that climate poses to health. Many people said in the workshop, ‘My eyes have been opened and I see now that we need to be really focused on this,’” Dr. Hospedales noted.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity and professionals working in the field. Worldwide, they are already responding to the harms caused by this unfolding crisis.
The WHO predicts that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.
Therefore, it is important for healthcare professionals in The Bahamas to be educated about the correlations of climate change and health by attending workshops like the Climate and Health Ambassadors Training because The Bahamas is low-lying and highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“I think that’s important because we need to make sure that our healthcare workers are trusted messengers. When you go to your doctor, you listen to your doctor,” Dr. Hamilton said.
“So, if our healthcare staff are knowledgeable and sensitized about climate change and its impacts on health, when you come to the physician or when you come and you speak to your nurse, then they’ll be able to further educate you or begin the education as it relates to climate change, and then how climate change may be affecting hypertension, diabetes, obesity and asthma because they all have a correlation.”
Another correlation between climate change and health in the country stems from storm surges. During storm surges, there is an influx of water coming into communities and in The Bahamas, the plumbing system in most buildings have septic tanks.
Dr. Hamilton explained that when the water coming in mixes with waste from the septic tanks there is an increase in diarrheal illnesses and vector borne diseases.
Climate change and health build case for climate justice
According to the WHO, the people whose health is being harmed first and worst by the climate crisis are the people who contribute least to its causes, and who are least able to protect themselves and their families against it – people in low-income and disadvantaged countries and communities.
This shows an inequitable distribution.
Dr. Hospedales said, “While we’re all affected, some people are much more badly affected depending on where you live, depending on whether you have insurance or not, depending on preexisting conditions you may have, whether you have high blood pressure, diabetes, you’ve got a disability. So, there are a lot of justices used inside of the climate and health story.”
In addition, the WHO key facts on climate and health show that areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.
According to Dr. Hospedales, health facilities need to be more resilient during clirmate events. During Hurricane Dorian, hundreds of evacuees sought refuge at the clinic in Marsh Harbour, Abaco and caused up to $2 million in equipment damages at the facility. Overall, Hurricane
Dorian caused approximately $100 million in damages to the Ministry of Health’s facilities in Abaco and Grand Bahama, according to former Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands. However, Dr. Hamilton added that health can always be used to justify a case because if you don’t have good health, then you really can’t get anything done. He mentioned that research will be conducted to assist with the fight for climate justice.
“What we’re going to do, is start to generate some research and data to actually show how fossil fuels, how the increase in Saharan dust is impacting air quality and once you have data and you are able to paint a true picture of what’s happening in The Bahamas, what’s happening in The Bahamas is likely what’s happening in the rest of the region,” Dr. Hamilton said. “So, that’s how we’re able to build on this case against climate injustice and environmental injustice. We need data.”
Through the Climate and Health Advocacy Network (CHAN) and other projects going on at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Dr. Hamilton hopes to publish documents on climate change and its impact on health.
This story was originally published by Bahamas Local, with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.