India plans a new breed of warriors to battle extreme climate impact: Doctors

It is important for medical professionals to be able to distinguish between a heatstroke and heat exhaustion. (AFP)
It is important for medical professionals to be able to distinguish between a heatstroke and heat exhaustion. (AFP)


  • India’s health ministry is working on a plan to include climate change and its impact on health for students studying to be medical professionals

NEW DELHI : In a season of scorching heat waves bracketed by a prolonged winter and predictions of extreme rains, it seems appropriate that the health ministry wants to include climate change in the curriculum for medical students.

If heatstrokes are rampant as temperatures hit 45 degree celsius in some states, including in New Delhi, heavy rains in the some southern regions have triggered alerts for vector-borne diseases such as dengue. Doctors are also blaming extreme weather for diseases such as covid and monkeypox.

To equip medical professionals to treat such conditions more appropriately and timely, the health ministry is considering including climate change education in the curriculum for medical students, according to two officials aware of the matter.

Many doctors in India are still not knowledgeable enough to treat health hazards arising out of climate change or natural calamities, one of them said.

Also read | Climate change is real: The world is hotter than it’s been for two millennia

“There are a lot of diseases emerging because of climate change. But not all doctors are much aware of them and hence are not able to provide the right treatment," said this official, declining to be identified. “A basic course on climate action at the MBBS level will enable them in a much better way" to treat such conditions, the official added.

The Union health and family welfare ministry did not reply to emailed queries on the matter.

What’s a heatstroke?

The National Centre for Disease Control recently issued guidelines on how to treat patients suffering from heat strokes.

NCDC and the National Programme on Climate Change and Human Health have also prepared guidelines for hospitals on deaths that can be labelled as heat-related or because of heatstroke, as part of introducing evidence-based medical decision-making.

“Identifying a patient succumbing due to heatstroke is not easy; it can only be done by experts," said the official quoted earlier.

Also read | Climate action: Delhi may have ideas worthy of wide emulation

The government is also working on an action plan to combat the effects of climate change on people’s health at the state-level. Most states and union territories, in collaboration with NCDC, have sent drafts of their action plans to the Union health ministry for approval.

These plans include a set of guidelines to handle the impact of climate change on people’s health over the next five years. Each plan has four main chapters—vulnerability, demography, illness, and environmental hazard.

Common diseases linked to extreme weather
  • Lyme disease: typically caused by warmer winters and extended summers, which can increase the activity period of ticks that spread the disease
  • Allergic rhinitis: caused by increased CO2 levels and warmer temperatures that can boost pollen production, exacerbating the condition more commonly known as hay fever
  • Salmonellosis: high temperatures enhance the growth of Salmonella bacteria in food
  • Giardiasis: caused by increased rainfall and flooding that can spread the protozoan Giardia through contaminated water sources, affecting the intestines
  • Campylobacteriosis: triggered by warm weather conditions promoting the spread of campylobacter bacteria in poultry and other food products

The World Health Organization has predicted an additional 250,000 climate-related deaths worldwide every year from 2030 to 2050 through malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress, with women, children and people with disabilities particularly at risk.

UNICEF has estimated that about 25% of the children in India experience high or extremely high water vulnerability, and that by 2040 almost 600 million children globally would be living in areas of extremely high water stress. 

A high probability for new viruses

NCDC has also been working on vector-borne diseases and zoonotic diseases, transmitted from animals to humans, that could be exacerbated by climate change.

“The impact of climate change is clearly visible on vector-borne diseases, and zoonotic diseases are also a rising concern," said a second official familiar with the matter, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “The decrease in forest areas will lead to a rise in zoonotic diseases, and there is a high probability that new viruses will emerge."

Also read | The fight against elephantiasis amid climate change challenges

Dr. Rajeev Jayadevan, a public health expert, said it was important for doctors to go beyond common health complications such as diabetes and heart diseases and also focus on diseases caused by climate change.

“Climate change is real. Animals are entering human habitats, which was not happening earlier. Zoonotic diseases like covid, ebola, monkeypox are some examples of how climate change has been threatening public health," said Dr. Jayadevan.

“Then there are vector-borne diseases like dengue, which is a growing menace," the doctor added. “There is no doubt that the production of mosquitoes and their behavioural pattern has changed."

There are also diseases, deprivation and ill health emerging out of drought or flooding. "It is clear that these processes are all interconnected and don’t exist in isolated silos…Doctors should go beyond studying existing diseases listed in the syllabus and learn how to prevent and manage the emerging diseases," he added.

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