Stranger than fiction

Canadian woman diagnosed with ‘climate change’

Doctor links world-first case to deadly heatwaves and wildfires

A Canadian woman is said to be the first patient in the world to have been given a diagnosis of climate change.

In late June, as parts of North America were experiencing a heatwave that would “go down as both the hottest and deadliest in Canadian history”, a woman in her 70s attended the emergency department of a hospital in British Columbia suffering from diabetes and heart failure, said the Canadian newspaper the Times Colonist

As temperatures continued to rise, more patients began presenting with respiratory illnesses. And “for the first time in his ten years as a physician”, Dr Kyle Merritt, the head of the emergency department, wrote the words “climate change” on his patient’s chart. 

The elderly patient was diagnosed with the unusual condition after the heatwaves worsened her frail health. It’s understood that the woman lived in a trailer without air conditioning, which exacerbated the risks of extreme heat. 

“If we’re not looking at the underlying cause, and we’re just treating the symptoms, we’re just going to keep falling further and further behind,” Merritt told local media.

Merritt “remembers a tipping point”, the Times Colonist said, with people running to shops to buy spray bottles in an attempt to keep patients cool. “Just as doctors and nurses started to make sense of the record heat, it cleared – only to be replaced by a blanket of wildfire smoke,” the paper continued. 

Both the heat and the smoke from wildfires caused severe health problems for British Columbia residents, and it is believed more than 500 people lost their lives as a result of the record-breaking temperatures this summer. The extreme heat took an “aggravated toll” on patients who were “battling multiple health problems at once, often with little money”, said the newspaper. “It’s hard to see people, especially the most vulnerable people in our society, being affected,” said Merritt.

He contacted other healthcare professionals in the Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia and a group called the Doctors and Nurses for Planetary Health has since been formed. Its members, “all busy trying to manage a pandemic and their regular professional lives”, Times Colonist noted, are “working to better human health by protecting the planet”, according to the group’s website.

Last month, more than 100 doctors and health experts warned in a report published by The Lancet that climate change was posing the greatest global risk to human health this century. However, the study also said climate change presents “the greatest opportunity to redefine the social and environmental determinants of health”.

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