MedUni Vienna: Climate protection is health protection - urgent action needed

At the start of a "Climate Warning Week”, the Medical University of Vienna and the Austrian Medical Association are running a series of events and campaigns to highlight the imminent dangers of the climate crisis. "As doctors we feel a particular responsibility – but it is a universal challenge!" is the conclusion.

"Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Whether it is heatwaves, floods or other climate-related social, socio-political or economic events and consequences – the common factor is usually serious consequences for the health and well-being of those affected," says Markus Müller, Rector of MedUni Vienna, at the press conference on Monday: "Therefore, in our capacity as one of the leading scientific institutions in Austria, it is particularly important that the Medical University of Vienna takes up this theme, takes responsibility and raises awareness of this global problem."

"We must now do everything we can"

"The current climate anomalies and extreme weather events are already causing huge economic damage. Flood disasters, mudslides and storms, but especially excessive heat have a massive impact upon people’s quality of life and health," adds Heinz Fuchsig, spokesperson for environmental medicine at the Austrian Medical Association. If we fail to reach the target of 1.5°C, hundreds of millions more people would be affected by deadly heat in excess of 50°C. According to the World Bank forecasts, there could be more than 140 million climate refugees by 2050, if politicians fail to take more decisive action to combat climate change.

"We must now do everything we can to effectively counter these apocalyptic scenarios," stresses Fuchsig. "It makes sense to adjust our unhealthy and environmentally damaging lifestyles now in order to avert the impending and severe worsening of conditions in the future. We are convinced, and can also scientifically prove, that levels of health can be improved by physical exercise – even incorporated into our travel – and reduced meat consumption but also by decisive action on the manifestations of today's throwaway society." We need incentives to do this but also products and services that are detrimental to the climate and to health must be made more expensive. CO2 levies or increased taxes on oil and also taxes on fats and sugar have had positive effects in many countries – for example in terms of heavy goods traffic.

"We feel that as doctors and actors in the healthcare system, we are responsible for reducing the carbon footprint of the healthcare system itself," says Fuchsig. "The voice of the helping professions quite rightly carries special weight, which is therefore associated with special responsibility. We are seeking and taking measures to protect our patients from climate-related damage and to prevent new diseases resulting from climate destabilisation. All those responsible – and that is not just the politicians but all of us, so society in general – must think in terms of generations and not sacrifice everything on the altar of continuous and reckless growth."

The Climate Warning Week project

Fuchsig has also chosen the Climate Warning Week to raise awareness of the subject. This is a project run by the environmental department of the Austrian Medical Association to provide healthcare professionals with scientific information on the subject. It will include information stands with materials in their own hospitals. The campaigns are supported by Tirol Kliniken, Steiermärkische GKK (Styrian Health Insurance Fund) and MedUni Graz, among others.

"We must not miss this opportunity"

Hans-Peter Hutter also believes that there has been a significant increase in the challenges faced by medicine. "Today, we are already seeing the huge effects that the climate crisis has on human health," says the expert in environmental medicine from MedUni Vienna's Center for Public Health. "We will have to expect far more heatwaves in future – forecasts indicate a tenfold increase by the year 2100. Accordingly, there will also be a significant increase in the number of deaths caused by the heat. Not forgetting the increase in allergies and respiratory diseases caused by higher pollen counts and more airborne pollution, as well as an increase in the number of infections due to the spread of (tropical) pathogens into northern climes."

Rapid implementation of strategies to adapt to climate change and climate protection measures is essential if we are to guarantee the protection of health. "It is the responsibility of the healthcare system to respond to the challenges of climate change, both on a clinical level and on a preventive level. In addition to this, doctors should set an example when it comes to living a climate-friendly lifestyle," says Hutter.

It is very important to inform and involve doctors. "However, it is still about health issues that have a high clinical relevance: reducing the current over-consumption of meat and taking more physical exercise not only significantly improve health – including reducing healthcare costs – but also help to protect the climate. We must not miss this opportunity, because it can bring about a sustainable change, while preserving our high quality of life," appeals Hutter.