• "If we don’t take real action to curb population growth and move away from a resource depleting to a recycling economy, we will be much worse off.” (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The biggest threat to healthcare in 50 years will not be cancer or a fatal virus that wipes out millions, but the devastating impact that climate change will reap around the world, an Australian Nobel laureate tells SBS.
Yasmin Noone

16 May 2016 - 11:25 AM  UPDATED 16 May 2016 - 11:25 AM

Leading immunologist Professor Peter Doherty has predicted major improvements in human health by 2066 – but with a sting in the tail from climate change.

Looking ahead 50 years in this week's Griffith Review, the co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for physiology writes that cancers will be cured and genetic, personalised medicine will be the norm.

“One of the things that will improve human health is knowing an individual’s susceptibility pattern and then tailoring healthcare delivery to that individual rather than on a gross population level,” says Prof Doherty.

He believes the human immune system will survive upcoming battles with viruses.

“There’s always a possibility for a new virus to come out of nature. But my personal perception is that we won’t get a terrible plague that wipes out the whole human race.

“Even if you take the influenza pandemic of 1918, the worst in modern history, you’ll find it killed a hell of a lot of people but still didn’t wipe out humanity.”

“There’s always a possibility for a new virus to come out of nature. But my personal perception is that we won’t get a terrible plague that wipes out the whole human race."

Prof Doherty explains that while we will live longer than ever, our quality of life will not be guaranteed. Degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s will be problematic, while scientists will still be working hard to discover a cure for AIDS.

“And this will be also true in 50 years' time, if not 20 years' time: if we don’t take real action to curb population growth and move away from a resource-depleting to a recycling economy, we will be much worse off.”

He accepts that many people don’t believe in climate change and characterise his claims as scare tactics.

But he believes the world's poorest individuals – especially those living in informal settlements such as refugee camps and slums – will be most affected by changing weather patterns and extreme heat.

“If you fly into Mumbai, you will see an enormous slum that comes up to the fence of the airport,” he says. “They are the types of people who are at risk because of extreme heat because of the unpredictability of food and water stress.”

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And the next century will see political structures crumble as food and water become more scarce, causing civil wars and even greater health concerns. “Don't forget that what triggered the French Revolution was a lack of food,” he notes.

Dr Leah Kaminsky, an award-winning writer and section editor at Medical Journal of Australia, sees other risks in the future.

She says excessive human population growth, a by-product of people living longer, could exacerbate health epidemics and further diminish the supply of food and water.

“A lot of our food is grown in China where the top-soil is polluted,” says Dr Kaminsky. “Zinc and iron levels are also dropping in some of our produce.

“The planet is disintegrating and diseases are returning that we haven’t seen around for a long time.

“It’s one planet, not a separate address overseas. And the future is coming faster than we seem to think. Take dengue fever for one: we are already seeing a huge increase in dengue fever and it’s migrated further south, posing all sorts of public health risks.”

According to the Queensland government, four separate dengue fever outbreaks have occurred in 2016 so far.

“Lyme disease has become more prevalent in Australia and tick bites are becoming more common also with the change in temperatures,” she says.

Prof Doherty, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, proposes a number of solutions to avoid the future he foresees.

First, control the world’s population growth with policies that aim to distribute wealth more evenly: “Population growth falls off as people become more aware and more prosperous.”

He adds, “We also need to make all health care and reproductive care readily available to all women.”

“It’s one planet, not a separate address overseas."

Prof Doherty encourages individuals to make Australia a more sustainable place to live by reducing their consumption and adopting healthy lifestyles.

“We’ve also got to think about the long-term and consider what’s good for my kids and their long-term future … If we can’t do that, we will have bigger problems.”

The Australian Medical Association’s 2015 position statement on Climate Change and Human Health also calls for Australia to plan for the major impacts of climate change on health.

It states that a higher incidence of extreme weather events, the spread of diseases and disrupted supplies of food and water threatens livelihoods and security.

The AMA lists the impacts as being increased heat-related illness and deaths, increased food- and water-borne diseases, and changing patterns of diseases.

The Australian government recently released a statement saying Australia is meeting all of its climate change targets while “helping to reduce costs for households and businesses”.

“The government’s policies reduce emissions by boosting energy productivity, reducing waste, rehabilitating degraded land, increasing renewable energy and driving innovation,” according to the Department of the Environment.


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