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What are the long-term health effects of natural disasters?

If you’ve been present here on Earth for the last few years, you probably noticed the dramatic increase in the number of extreme weather events and natural disasters around the world. In fact, scientists have determined that in recent decades, there has been a significant increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather climate-related events worldwide. These events are associated with warming temperatures globally, and include occurrences such as monsoons and droughts in India, the destructive hurricane in Puerto Rico, and major flooding in Houston, Texas.

With climate change increasing the frequency of these events, it’s important that we better understand how human health can be affected in the long-term by natural disasters. Increased understanding may help to develop more effective approaches for planning and response. This was the goal of a recent study published in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association.

Dr. Jesse Bell of North Carolina Institute of Climate Studies and colleagues stress that properly preparing for a disaster response should entail understanding the many complex ways in which these events affect human health. Immediate injuries are one obvious factor, but there are other indirect or delayed health effects that are often overlooked, including mental health impacts.

The authors warn that as the climate changes, planning for these disasters based on historical examples alone will be unlikely to provide the complete picture of potential health threats. With climate change becoming more of a factor, historical norms alone aren’t going to be sufficient for linking extreme weather events to long-term health outcomes.

It is suggested that healthcare facilities should work to determine their vulnerabilities in local infrastructure in order to be fully prepared for a natural disaster. Issues such as overcrowding, loss of power, reduction of staff, and problematic location could play a major part in exacerbating short and long-term health problems.

“Some of the associations between extreme events and health are already understood,” the authors say. “But many opportunities exist for exploring additional linkages and pathways.” Along with further research, there should be an increased effort to coordinate institutional, government, and private sector programs in order to help with recovery after a natural disaster as assist in rebuilding necessary infrastructure, while also supporting the public.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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