Children’s health in peril as climate impacts escalate in PH
MANILA, Philippines – More Filipinos are now exposed to viral diseases due to climate change impacts in the country.
"He had been complaining of headache and stomach cramps, and had chills at night even when it was humid. In the morning, blood came out of his nose. It happened so fast," said Phoebe Ambanloc, a dental secretary from San Carlos City in Pangasinan.
Ambanloc recalled the dreadful experience of watching his 22-year-old brother Fabian fall sick to dengue in September. Before getting sick, Fabian had spent a week taking care of their 8-year-old sister, Letecia, who was hospitalized because of dengue as well.
"It was traumatic to have two family members fall sick one after the other. We cleared plant pots and put mosquito nets up after that," Ambanloc said. (READ: DOH identifies 80 barangays as dengue 'hot zones')
The case of the Ambanloc siblings is not isolated as more Filipino children face the dangers of vector-borne diseases such as dengue and Chikungunya – a mosquito-borne disease that shares clinical symptoms with dengue, but is incurable.
Records from the Department of Health (DOH) show there were 76,391 people who had been infected with the dengue virus from January to September in 2017. (READ: Fast facts about dengue in PH)
While this is 45.4% lower compared to the same period last year, alarmingly, majority of the cases (22.5%) had been children from 5 to 9 years old. This age group also recorded the highest fatality.
A total of 1,530 Chikungunya cases were recorded from January to September 2017, with most patients belonging to the 25 to 29 years age group. There were 3 deaths reported. (READ: DOH warns vs mosquito bites after 9 deaths from Japanese encephalitis)
Children's health endangered
Dr Anthony Calibo, officer-in-charge of the Children’s Health Division at the Disease Prevention and Control Bureau at the Department of Health (DOH), said that forest destruction which disturbs the habitat of certain disease carrying insects has led to increase in spreading the disease.
"With forest destruction resulting to or being part of climate change, mosquitoes for example will try to fly to other areas when their known habitat has been destroyed. As such, Aedes mosquitoes, the vector of dengue and chikungunya, seek refuge in domesticated settings," he explained.
In a lecture, Jonathan Lambert of Cornell University's Institute for Climate Smart Solutions said that mosquitoes migrating to new habitats is part of climate-induced changes in vector behavior and ecology. (READ: Climate change: Why PH should care)
With thinner forest cover, there is lesser defense against global warming. A warmer environment alters breeding periods for species such as mosquitoes, causing them to mature faster and become active disease carriers sooner, he explained.
Lambert also cited that the El Niño weather event, which is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures, has increased malaria risks 5-fold.
"There’s also been an increase in water-borne disease outbreaks that occur after extreme precipitations which are occurring due to climate change," he said. This has a disproportionate effect on communities, putting the elderly and the very young at greater risk, he added.
Aside from being at risk of infection from vector-borne diseases, Filipino children are also most vulnerable to diarrhea, upper respiratory tract infection including pneumonia, and measles when disasters displace their families and disrupt their lives.
Seeking shelter in crowded evacuation centers that have poorly hygienic conditions make children more susceptible to diseases, Calibo said. (READ: On nutrition and disasters)
"Malnutrition can also happen because of disruption of routine practices at home involving feeding of infants and young children. Other climate disturbances as drought, extreme heat can also affect food security leading to malnutrition," he added.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) acknowledges the need to improve evacuation facilities.
Karla Minorka Aldea, communications staff of the NDRRMC, said they have started installing more toilets and bathing facilities in evacuation areas. "There are also interventions for nutrition such as vitamin supplication and supplementary feeding," she added.
Many health impacts from climate change can be prevented through early action, significantly lowering the costs as opposed to dealing with impacts after they occur, Cornell University’s Lambert argued.
"Climate action is much more beneficial to our over-all economy than climate inaction," he urged.
Calibo said that geohazard mapping should integrate both climate and geologic risks with the other aspects of child health, including access to health care facilities, food production and security, and road and transport network availability. "This way, risks mitigation and disaster preparedness will be achieved," he said.
Calibo said that as a means to build resilience amid climate change-related health risks among children, the DOH is mapping its strategies towards Goal 3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 development goals internationally adopted in 2015 that seeks to end poverty, hunger, and lack of access to quality healthcare and education by 2030. SDG 3 addresses equal access to healthcare.
The First 1000 Days campaign, for example, links many public health interventions to SDG 3 and also SDG 2, he said, with programs that aim to reduce newborn, infant and under-5 child deaths and child malnutrition. (READ: Global Goals)
"If health is at the center of all policies and strategies, the welfare of children will always be assured," Calibo said.
According to a 2015 UNICEF report, more than half a billion children live in areas with extremely high flooding occurrence and 160 million live in drought zones, therefore exposing them to the dangers of climate change.
"All interventions that will reduce impact of climate change on children will ultimately be dependent on efforts and initiatives by the adult members of the community, the decision and policy makers and implementors," Calibo said.– Rappler.com
Ping Manongdo is a correspondent for Eco-Business, a Singapore-based sustainability-focused news organization. She was also a 2017 Southeast Asia Fellow for ClimateTracker, one of the world's biggest communities of climate journalists, and recently finished a course with Cornell University on climate change science, action, and communication.