In the first diagnosis of its kind, a Canadian patient has been diagnosed as suffering from “climate change” after a doctor became frustrated dealing with multiple cases of people harmed by wildfires and a heat wave over the summer.
Kyle Merritt, an emergency room doctor in Nelson, British Columbia, made the diagnosis after the patient went to the emergency room with a case of asthma that was made worse by smoke during wildfire season.
The patient was one of many who suffered from poor air quality caused by the smoke, which is an annual problem for this area of British Columbia.
Another patient, a woman in her 70s, was admitted to the emergency department at Kootenay Lake Hospital in late June, in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave when temperatures rose as high as 121 degrees Fahrenheit.
“She has diabetes. She has some heart failure. … She lives in a trailer, no air conditioning,” Merritt told Glacier Media.
“All of her health problems have all been worsened. And she's really struggling to stay hydrated.”
Over the summer, experts attributed the deaths of more than 500 people in the region to record-breaking temperatures, according to coroner reports. Wildfires in July and August made the air quality 43 times worse than levels scientists say are safe.
“We were having to figure out how do we cool someone in the emergency department,” Merritt explained. “People are running out to the Dollar Store to buy spray bottles.”
Witnessing environmental factors impact his patients' health convinced Merritt that doctors need to directly call out climate change in their diagnoses, to raise awareness of the issue.
“If we're not looking at the underlying cause, and we're just treating the symptoms, we're just gonna keep falling further and further behind,” he said.
“It's me trying to just … process what I'm seeing. We're in the emergency department, we look after everybody, from the most privileged to the most vulnerable, from cradle to grave, we see everybody. And it's hard to see people, especially the most vulnerable people in our society, being affected. It's frustrating,” he added.
Merritt and about 40 other doctors and nurses have formed a group called “Doctors and Nurses for Planetary Health.” They say that climate change is the “biggest public health threat of the 21st century.”
As such, they're calling on the government of British Columbia to end fossil fuel subsidies “immediately” and spend money to transition to “clean energy.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic proved that our leaders are able to face health threats quickly and resolutely. The health of our planet, and all its inhabitants, cannot tolerate any further delay in climate change mitigation,” the group said in a call to action. “We must implement bold and innovative climate solutions now. Our health depends on it.”
“I don't think people realize the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change on human health,” Merrit told a local British Columbia news outlet last week.
“Working with patients directly, we are actually starting to see the health effects of climate change now. It's not just something that is going to happen in the future.”
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