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Column: Act on climate now to protect New Hampshire’s public health

Published: 11/7/2021 10:00:09 PM
Modified: 11/7/2021 10:00:11 PM

While we, as physicians, have different areas of medical specialization, we share a professional and ethical code with all health care delivery personnel; first and foremost, all decisions must be made in the best interests of the patients and populations we serve. With that in mind, we feel obligated to share our evidenced-based knowledge and recommendations regarding the No. 1 long-term health problem we face: climate change.

Members of the New Hampshire medical community have seen a measurable growth in health-related issues that can be traced to changes in the climate affecting Northern New England. One area of particular importance is the increase in tick-borne diseases being seen in the U.S. in general and New Hampshire specifically.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, tick-borne disease rates have doubled in the past 13 years. The vast majority of these cases are due to Lyme disease (82%), but New Hampshire residents are also at risk for four other serious tick-borne diseases: anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Borrelia miyamotoi infection and Powassan virus infection. All of these are transmitted by the bite of the blacklegged tick, endemic in colder temperate regions in the U.S. seasonally while temperatures remain above freezing. One of the ramifications of our changing climate is that “killing frosts” that greatly reduce tick populations come later every year. The first widespread frost in New Hampshire this year wasn’t until Oct. 29!

While increases in the tick populations and associated diseases might seem to be the most alarming health-related problems due to climate change, public health experts warn of much broader impacts in the future. Some are dependent on specific age groups, such as an increase in childhood asthma rates, heat impacts on seniors and those with moderate and severe lung disease, and increases in certain cancers. In addition, climate change is expected to bring more extreme weather events, increased coastal and river flooding, and an increase in mosquito-borne disease.

As medical professionals, we are acutely aware of the serious nature of these impacts on the health of our fellow citizens. Reducing the effects connected to climate change will require broad policy changes like those proposed in the Build Back Better plan being discussed in Congress.

According to a recent survey for The Nature Conservancy, conducted by the bipartisan polling firms FM3 and New Bridge Strategy, New Hampshire voters recognize the changes we are already experiencing, and 79% of Granite Staters believe addressing climate change is a priority. In today’s polarized world, few issues receive such strong support from across the political spectrum.

In fact, the survey shows a number of climate-related solutions — from forest restoration to developing and improving energy technology to reducing carbon emissions — as very important, and on par with investments such as making health care more affordable and expanding access to affordable home care for seniors. Nearly seven in 10 said that transitioning to more clean energy and reducing carbon pollution are good investments of taxpayers’ money. Nearly six in 10 want to see bold action on climate change, even if it requires federal spending in the short term.

The opportunity to begin making significant strides to slow climate change is being presented to us at the highest levels of our government, and the time to act is now. We thank Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan for their longstanding efforts advocating for New Hampshire’s values, including our climate values, and ask them to do all they can to ensure that strong climate change provisions remain in the final reconciliation package that comes out of Congress in the coming weeks.

John R. Butterly, of Norwich, is a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and a trustee of The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire. Tom Sherman, of Rye, N.H., is a gastroenterologist who represents District 24 in the New Hampshire Senate and sits on the Health and Human Services and Transportation committees. He is chief medical officer for the COVID Policy Alliance and was chair of the New Hampshire Emissions Commission.

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