Home / News / India /  Climate change, air pollution big health risks now: PHFI president Sanjay Zodpey

New Delhi: Climate change and air pollution are now becoming big health risks and all stakeholders such as business enterprises, regulators and civil society should work together to raise awareness about these emerging threats, says Sanjay Zodpey, newly appointed president of Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) in an interview to Mint. Highlighting the harmful effects of air pollution, Prof Zodepy said there is evidence to suggest that mothers who have been exposed to air pollution during their pregnancy have had low birth weight children, and preterm deliveries, while children are facing neurological problems. Edited excerpts of the interview:

What are your goals and vision as you take charge as new PHFI president? 

PHFI will continue to work for improving the health outcomes in India. We recognize that a transformational change in health of the population needs a collaborative approach and close alignment with the public health priorities of country. We will continue to adopt a broad, integrative approach to public health which is tailored to Indian conditions. I adhere to the philosophy that health care must be addressed not only from the scientific perspective of what works, but also from the social perspective of, who needs it the most.

The long-term vision of the PHFI is to strengthen India’s public health institutional and systems capability and provide knowledge to achieve better health outcomes for all. Not only me as President but all the constituents and stakeholders of PHFI are committed to fulfilling this long-term vision. I shall be working closely with the national and state governments to build partnerships to strengthen health systems, capacity building of public health workforce and collaborative research to generate evidence for the policy through our institutional network.

With covid around us for more than two years, when will we consider covid as a past or when will the endemicity come? 

The pandemic posed multiple challenges globally over the past couple of years. India is currently reporting the lowest number of cases. This downward trajectory is being witnessed in practically the entire country. We are consistently vaccinating a large number of people. From a public health perspective, we all are carefully observing this change. Fortunately, we are not seeing any variant that causes excessive hospitalization or deaths.

However, we cannot consider covid a thing of the past. Any infectious disease in any part of the world or country remains a threat to mankind. The unique characteristic of an infectious disease is its ability to spread from one person to another, this spread is driven by population mixing and human behavior predisposing vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and people with co-existing diseases at very high risk.

Hence, we should continue to maintain a strict vigil and a high degree of preparedness.

People are exhausted of wearing masks during the pandemic? Do you think people should discontinue this practice or make it a part of their life? 

As I said earlier, infectious disease transmission is primarily driven by population mixing and vulnerable persons are at high risk for morbidity and mortality because of covid. As responsible citizen, each one of us should contribute towards making society safe for our children and elderly, which can be ensured through high coverage of vaccination and compliance to public health interventions such as cough etiquette and appropriate mask use. Masks help in preventing spread of respiratory diseases. From a risk management perspective also mask use remains a critical factor if you are vulnerable and consider yourself at risk of disease, you should continue to use masks in closed spaces such as air-conditioned spaces such as offices, malls, hospitals, marriage halls, etc.

What about other communicable and non- communicable diseases? Are we addressing those issues? 

The pandemic stretched health systems across the world. There have been several investments in building greater capacity and resilience within the health systems. While health systems were responding to the urgent challenges of covid management and care, there were short-term slow-downs across other disease control programs. This was witnessed all across the world. In all my interactions with senior health staff, there has been a thrust on catch up activities for all public health programs. We have a well-developed public health program structure which is capably handling all communicable and non-communicable diseases. However, climate change and air pollution are now becoming important risk factors. We need to work with other stakeholders such as business enterprises, regulators and civil society to raise awareness of the threats and develop a shared vision to address these emerging threats.

How are air pollution and climate changes affecting human life? 

Air pollution poses a significant environmental risk to health. In recent times, there has been a lot of focus on air pollution levels and its health effects in the long run. Fine particulate matter is particularly harmful, as they can penetrate into the bloodstream through the lungs, and enter organs causing damage to cells and tissues. The adverse health outcomes linked with prolonged exposure to air pollution include stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Children, elderly and pregnant women are at the highest risk of falling sick after exposure to air pollution. There is evidence to suggest that mothers who have been exposed to air pollution during their pregnancy have had low birth weight children, preterm deliveries, etc. Children have been observed to have neurological problems linked to air pollution.

 How is PHFI looking to support the government in terms of epidemiological guidance? 

We work very closely with the central and state governments. During covid times also, we contributed technically and on the ground through our institutional network. In near future, we are planning to establish a dedicated multidisciplinary team to work on infectious disease epidemiology and the economic consequences of such diseases to highlight the need for pandemic preparedness and health security.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priyanka Sharma

Priyanka Shamra is a health and pharma journalist with nearly nine years of field reporting experience. She is a special correspondent with Mint. Her beat includes covering the Ministry of Health and Department of Pharmaceuticals. She also covers the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Department of Biotechnology.
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