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Helping Vulnerable Populations at Risk from Climate Change: Lessons from the Field

November 17, 2016 | The Nation's Health

One of the ways to protect vulnerable populations from climate change is to create plans that consider their health and well-being — not only in emergencies, but also when considering future infrastructure.

Such planning can help health workers decide where to invest in health programs, said Jeremy Hess, MD, MPH, co-director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington.

“In terms of adapting to the climate change we are experiencing and will continue to in the future…it’s important to use vulnerability assessments for communities already suffering from climate-related diseases and to get a sense of how much those climate sensitive disease burdens will change over time, and to invest in essential public health, (such as) making sure that we’re doing the proper surveillance,” Hess told The Nation’s Health.

In Denver, where heat-related mortality is projected to double by 2050, public health and environmental health researchers at the City and County of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health are working on creating a mapping tool to release in early 2017 that will include a climate and health equity vulnerability index, said Elizabeth Babcock, manager of air, water and climate at the City and County of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health.

The tool can have a long-lasting impact, as city planners will be updating every neighborhood plan over the next five years, she said.

“We can look at what neighborhoods will be affected by heat and (ask) ‘Can we mitigate by planting more trees? Can we mitigate air quality concerns for how close we build next to roadways or where we place schools?’” Babcock told The Nation’s Health. “We’re hoping this tool can be used citywide and by external partners to see which areas have the most vulnerable populations and what can we do about it.”

The project in Denver is one of more than a dozen urban health departments that received grants in 2015 from the Public Health Institute’s Center for Climate Change and Health to participate in a Climate Change and Public Health Learning Collaborative. Funded by the Kresge Foundation, the grants are meant to help departments beef up their approaches to tackling climate change and health equity in their communities.

One of those departments is the Maricopa County Department of Public Health in Arizona. Department staff are surveying residents who participate in home meal delivery programs about their awareness of heat, how they adapt and their availability and use of air conditioning. If they are not using air conditioning, which is recommended during periods of high heat, they are asked about financial or technical barriers.

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