What You Missed – TUM Global Health Day on Climate Change and Health

by Maeve Cook-Deegan

October 21st marked TUM’s second Global Health Day. In the wake of the UN Climate summit and in the era of Fridays for Future, the topic was timely: Climate Change and Health.

For those of you who weren’t able to attend, or those who want to relive it, among the many topics that arose from the lectures and panel discussions, there were a few clear messages:

1. Climate health, human health and animal health are intimately connected. Rising temperatures and flooding were two recurring examples which have documented widespread impacts on human health.

2. We need to work together. Medical researchers, architects, data analysts and climate experts should be collaborating on solutions. Research is too often happening in isolation, with scientists often unable to effectively communicate their findings to policy makers or the general public.

3. There will be no change without behavioral change (and beyond!). A resounding message from the panel discussions was that we need systematic changes, but more than that, we, as health professionals (and beyond), need to see ourselves as political agents. Sure, limit the amount you fly, but also push for policies that will reduce airline subsidies.

Prof. Dr. Dr. Thomas Mettenleiter during his talk “Illegal Immigrants: Viruses and Vectors”

Prof. Dr. Dr. Thomas Mettenleiter from the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute introduced a topic that is too often overlooked when speaking about global health, namely the links (and potential future links) between animal and human health. At least 75% of diseases have an animal origin and yet we usually only hear about the outbreaks once they have affected enough humans, which could be dangerously short-sighted. He suggested a connection between the high number of cases of West Nile Virus documented last year in Europe and the extraordinarily hot summer to exemplify the reality of One Health – animal, human and environmental health as inextricably intertwined.

Dr. Jorge Leandro from the TUM Chair of Hydrology and River Basin Management, with his expertise in the advanced modelling of flooding in urban areas, had a different background to most people in the room. We already know the innumerable health costs – from spikes in cholera and dengue to long-term mental health consequences – that go hand in hand with this leading natural disaster, floods. He suggested that health professionals and advocates could take a page out of the modelling playbook, so to speak. What if we could model the likely spread of Zika in the wake of a flood? This could help policy makers, health professionals and those affected prepare and respond better.

Prof. Dr. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann conducts research on environment-human and environment-environment interactions. Having recently contributed to a report submitted to the UN on Air Pollution in Health, Dr. Traidl-Hoffmann was able to convincingly advocate for the day’s topic. She identified diabetes, ezcema, hyperlipidemia and myocardial infarctions as just a few additional health consequences of climate change. Allergies were spotlighted. Already affecting 30-40% of the population, they are expected to increase even further. Based on experiments in her lab, wherein plants are studied in the context of simulated climatic changes, she predicts an increased allergenicity of pollen with rising CO2.

Prof. Dr. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann during her talk about “Climate Change and Health”

The Panel Discussion invited two more speakers, Prof. Dr. Miranda Schreurs (Chair of Environmental and Climate Policy – TUM) and Dr. Martin Herrmann to join the discussion. With very different backgrounds—Dr. Schreurs has dedicated her life to environmental and sustainability research and

policy, while Dr. Herrmann is an MD and psychotherapist turned activist representing KLUG (Alliance for Climate Change and Health), they brought fresh perspectives to the table. The panelists responded to major questions including how we can translate what we know into policy and practice. Dr. Schreurs advocated, and received panel support, for a TUM multi-day interdisciplinary collaboration workshop to swap ideas, find solutions and provoke action on the issue of sustainability at TUM and beyond. The audience also posed questions and chimed in. For example, a local veterinarian shared that she has witnessed a clear rise of zoonotic diseases in dogs as a result of climate change. These discussions sparked impassioned questions and comments which were spilling out until the end.

Fittingly, the main part of the day wrapped up with a comment from a medical student, who spoke about the “elephant in the room” i.e., animal agriculture, which indeed up until that point had not been mentioned. He cited a study from Oxford (available here: https://bit.ly/36hv3yu), which notes that the single biggest way to reduce your impact is to switch to a plant-based diet. This touches on an important point. If we as a health community proclaim this concept of One Health, should doctors thus be recommending a plant-based diets to their patients? Should medical students be taught to advocate for environmentally sustainable lifestyles? These questions were not addressed today but moving forward it is clear we as a community need to be tackling these issues head on. Perhaps at next year’s Global Health Day…

The Panel Discussion with Prof. Dr. Dr. Andrea Winkler, Dr. Jorge Leandro, Prof. Dr. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann, Dr. Martin Herrmann, Dr. Miranda Schreurs and Prof. Dr. Clarissa Prazeres da Costa (from left to right)

The Global Health Fair which followed the day’s events allowed students and interested parties to get information and speak to representatives from various partners. These included Merck Global Health Institute and Novartis Social Business (both sponsors of the event), the Bavarian State Ministry of Health and Food Safety, Health for Future, and many more.

I believe I can speak on behalf of both myself and all the attendees, when I say that the Center for Global Health is facilitating important work. It has created an invaluable platform for people from different faculties and backgrounds to come together to exchange research and ideas on global health. The directors Prof. Dr. Clarissa Prazeres da Costa and Prof. Dr. Dr. Andrea Winkler have been fierce proponents of this mission. They seamlessly guided the day with their thoughtful questions and insights. Also, a big thank you goes out to Ms. Katharina Klohe, who organized the exceptional event. Thank you to everyone who was involved, we look forward to what lies ahead.

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