Every year, roughly 30,000 Americans contract Lyme disease from a blacklegged tick. | CDC photo
A study of 10 climate-impacted events in 2012 estimates the health-related costs of those events at $10 billion, with an $8 million price tag for Lyme disease spreading in Michigan alone.
The study from the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says the costs stem from an estimated total of 917 deaths, 20,568 hospitalizations and 17,857 emergency department visits.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Vijay Limaye, climate change and health science fellow at NRDC’s Science Center, said in a media conference call Wednesday that the study addresses the health costs of climate change-related events, whereas the national conversation mostly focuses on the material costs. However, the study does put a price tag on the cost of health care.
“Studies like this show that we’ve got to expand the conversation on climate change to include the profound suffering and expensive health costs that we can avoid by cutting climate pollution and investing in community preparedness,” Limaye said. “As this work shows, we really can’t afford to do anything less.”
Limaye said 2012 was selected for the study because it showed a variety of climate-related impacts in the United States in terms of severity, geographic reach and health impact.
The study looks at data from 10 climate-impacted events in 11 states in 2012, including Michigan:
- Infectious disease outbreaks of tick‐borne Lyme disease in Michigan
- Harmful algal blooms on the Florida coast
- Wildfires in Colorado and Washington
- Ozone air pollution in Nevada
- Impacts of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York
- Extreme heat in Wisconsin
- Mosquito‐borne West Nile virus in Texas
- Extreme weather in Ohio
- Allergenic oak pollen in North Carolina
According to the NRDC, rising global temperatures allow Lyme disease carrying ticks to expand their geographic reach. It’s the same case for West Nile virus carrying mosquitoes.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not currently classify Michigan as a high-incidence state for Lyme disease. However, a study by the Infectious Diseases Society of America says that the number of cases multiplied five-fold from 2000 to 2014.
In the early 2000s, cases were largely only found in one county in the Upper Peninsula bordering Wisconsin. By 2016, 24 of 83 Michigan counties reported Lyme disease cases.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 1,000 cases were reported by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). During the first four years of this window, fewer than 30 cases were reported a year. In 2013, 166 cases were reported.
Total health-related costs for Michigan for Lyme disease in 2012 was $8 million, and almost half of the cost was borne by patients using Medicare.
Medicare and Medicaid users accounted for two-thirds of the total health-related costs in the NRDC’s study of 11 states. Study co-author Dr. Wendy Max said this data reflects that those most at risk of health impacts related to climate change are the very young and the very old.
“Understanding the health-related costs of climate change allows us to paint a more complete picture of the potential burden we’re facing and to see it in human terms,” Max said. “It adds a new urgency to the need to mitigate climate change and also to improve health care delivery systems to better address events as they occur.
Dr. Jay Lemery, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said studies like this can allow medical professionals to add their input on climate change policy, it intersects climate change health impacts with economic impact.
Right now, medical professionals see the end results of climate change impacting public health, such as prolonged wildfire seasons correlating with an increase in asthma exacerbations, Lemery said. Without environmental information, medical professionals aren’t as best prepared to accommodate visits for predictable ailments as they possibly can be.
Medical professionals need their medical education to include environmental literacy to see the connections between climate change and public health, Lemery said.
Max added that the solution to the disconnect has to include better resources for medical professionals to track correlations between the changing climate and health impacts.
“Collecting the longitudinal impacts of climate change is an expensive endeavor, but crucial to helping medical professionals and researchers understanding the impacts of climate change on human health,” Max said. “Little has been researched on the trends in the cost of the mental health impacts of climate change.”
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