Climate Change Poses a Health Crisis

Planning for – and working to lessen – the increase in disease from human-caused change

On April 22, Earth Day headlines often focus on the most visible effects climate change will bring in coming decades: Loss of coastal land to rising sea levels, drought and heat destroying arable farmland, or the extinction of threatened species. Just as serious, however, are the invisible effects of climate change, ones that pose an immediate and critical challenge to human health, from a sharp increase in serious respiratory and cardiovascular disease to the rapid spread of vector-borne diseases.

This poses a challenge to public health officials and health care companies alike to prepare to deal with the potential health effects of climate change, as well as work to mitigate the factors driving climate change.

The effects are already being felt. So-called extreme weather events, like extended heat waves, are becoming more frequent, with devastating effects on vulnerable individuals including children, the elderly, and people in developing countries who lack ready access to emergency health interventions. Habitat changes are creating new places for disease vectors such as certain species of mosquitos to flourish where they could not thrive before, carrying diseases like malaria to new and vulnerable populations.

Making it harder to breathe

Climate change, along with urbanization, is also driving an increase in fine particles in the atmosphere, which are able to penetrate deep into the respiratory tract. Not only can these potentially lead to lung cancer or the onset of some cardiovascular diseases, they can make respiratory conditions such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) more frequent and more dangerous. It is estimated, for example, that about 15% of new asthma cases are related to pollution.

In addition, increased levels of small particulate pollution can create life-long respiratory problems for otherwise healthy individuals.

Naimish Patel

“There’s an immediate risk for patients who have a respiratory disease to have a worsening of the disease, and for children to have worsening lung function over time,” said Naimish Patel, Vice-President, Head of Early Clinical Development, Immunology and Inflammation, Sanofi Genzyme. “At the same time, children who grow up where there is a higher level of pollution have diminished lung function, and diminished lung function is a risk factor for morbidity and mortality in adulthood when there is a natural decline in lung function.”

Naimish Patel, Vice-President,
Head of Early Clinical Development,
Immunology and Inflammation,
Sanofi Genzyme

Climate change also can extend range of plants that cause allergies and lengthen the allergy season, posing additional risk to sufferers of allergic rhinitis for example – the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reported that pollen counts in some regions will double by 2040, and sensitization to ragweed will more than double in Europe to 77 million people between 2041 and 2060.

Planning to meet the challenge

These potential health effects of climate change are a major reason biopharma companies like Sanofi have joined international efforts to combat climate change – as well as to accelerate preparedness for meeting the increased demand for effective treatments.

“Sanofi has already faced the question of supply in a climate-related emergency, such as a flood or severe hurricane which requires quick adaptations especially to supply drugs in difficult conditions. These cases are often managed by our Foundation Sanofi Espoir. The company has also conducted research on additional treatments for vector-borne diseases whose range is expanding or where the cycles are changing along with the climate change,” said Ophra Rebière, Vice-President, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Sanofi.

“Aligning research efforts to develop even more treatments to address the disease effects of climate change is a topic of work for our entire industry,” Ophra Rebière added. “So is studying the impact of the potential disappearance of key plant species or organisms that are vital to the production of some drugs and biopharmaceuticals.”

Ophra Rebière,
Head of Corporate Social Responsibility,

Ophra Rebière
Jean-Christophe Bligny

“Sanofi also is adjusting its business practices, all along the manufacturing and distribution chain including offices, to reduce its own environmental footprint. That includes dividing by two our greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 within 10 years timeframe and to be carbon neutral by 2050”, said Jean-Christophe Bligny, Global Head Environment, Sanofi. “We are also committed to anticipate environmental risks to avoid any interruption of pharmaceuticals manufacturing, especially for saving-life products,” he said.

Jean-Christophe Bligny,
Global Head Environment,

Besides the human cost in illness and suffering, the increased disease burden caused by climate change poses a significant financial burden to society, adding another significant reason to combat the problem.

“Ten years ago, the US Natural Resources Defense Council investigated the health costs of six US climate change-related events and estimated the cost at more than $14 billion,” Rebiere said. “This is an indication of the effects and related costs of these events that we will face,” she added. “That is just one more reason this is being taken so seriously in so many countries, and that action plans and programs are in place or being developed.”


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