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Climate Change is the biggest public health challenge of our lives, according to UAB Dean—here’s why
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Climate Change is the biggest public health challenge of our lives, according to UAB Dean—here’s why




UAB School of Public Health Dean Dr.Paul Erwin and Dr.Jeff Wickliffe, Chair of UAB’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Photo by Pat Byington, Bham Now

“Climate Change is the biggest public health challenge of our lives…even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic. This will continue to be with me for the rest of my life, no matter how long I live. It will pass on to my children, who will have to address this largely human-caused change in our environment.”

Dr. Paul Erwin,UAB,Dean of School of Public Health

Dr. Paul Erwin (Dean, School of Public Health), environmental headshot taken outside the Ryals Building in May 2021.

As a medical and public health professional for nearly four decades, Dr. Erwin doesn’t mince words. He is sounding the alarm about the impact of climate change on our health, Alabama’s economy and your family. But will we be able to listen? UAB has.

Because of Dr. Erwin’s efforts, since he became Dean in 2018, UAB has begun what they call a “cluster hire”—the addition of five to six researchers/professors, including senior leadership. This multidisciplinary team of experts will be focusing on climate change and health at the School of Public Health. It’s a game-changer.

This is the first part of a series that will include three parts about climate change in Alabama. 

Today’s topic? Health. 

Climate Change and Your Wellbeing

Ellen Esling interviewed Catherine Flowers. Photo by Alabama Rivers Alliance

Catherine Flowers, an Alabamian 2020 MacArthur Fellow and author of the highly acclaimed book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret” is ecstatic about UAB’s work to connect climate change with people’s health.

“After just returning from COP 26 (the recent global climate change summit) in Glasgow, Scotland, I am happy to see the UAB School of Public Health recognize the threat that climate change is to our health, wellbeing and quite frankly our children’s future,” she said. “This positions UAB to be a leader not just in Alabama but in the South as we address the challenges of this existential crisis. I welcome the opportunity to work with them on saving our planet, our state and our children’s future.”

The New Group 

Students at UAB water testing. Photo by UAB

How will the UAB’s new group function?

They have brought onboard faculty with a common interest on the effects of climate change on human and animal health. 

In a recent ZOOM interview, Dr. Erwin said that Dr. Jeff Wickliffe, Chair of UAB’s Department of Environmental Health SciencesBoth the authors described how it will work.

“One of the five departments in the school is epidemiology,” said Erwin in his role as Dean. “One of our strengths is in cardiovascular epidemiology. So, when we are hiring new faculty we look for someone whose research deals with the impacts of extreme heat on the cardiovascular system.”

Erwin hired Dr. Wickliffe as a consultant to connect the dots between changing climates and better health.

“Because of climate change, we’re going to see longer periods of time at high temperatures. As a result, anybody that works outdoors — from landscape folks to construction workers to road crews to farmers to foresters — they’re going to be experiencing more days of heat exposure, more days of dehydration.” 

Wickliffe said that as a result, scientists are witnessing dramatic increases in kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and other complications due to dehydration. 

The job is to identify and solve the problem.

Additional Examples – Heat Islands, Mosquitoes, Ticks

Fort Payne Alabama
Little River Falls, October 2016, during the great Drought in 2016

Are there other areas where climate is connected to public health?  

Helping vulnerable populations and the poor to mitigate the negative effects on their health urban heat islandsClimate change has caused it.

Or how about the mosquitoes or ticks and their ever-expanding range due to a world that’s warming dramatically. 

“I have to mention the expanding range of vector borne diseases and illnesses,” Dr. Erwin added. “When mosquitoes and ticks are able to over-winter at higher and higher latitudes, it extends the period of transmission potential and extends the range of those vectors and the impact of those diseases. Lyme disease has been really expanding. It has expanded well up into Canada now.”

Lyme disease is not the only vector disease on the move— others include Dengue fever Zika.

It’s a public health concern, both Erwin and Wickliffe agreed.

Extreme Weather

UAB Flooding
Flooding near UAB campus, 8th Street and 6th Avenue South, February 10, 2020 Photo by Jon Eastwood from Bham Now

Let’s not forget the extreme weather we have been experiencing here in Alabama. Yes, you can’t pin it all on climate change, but over the last few years the Birmingham area has seen some once-in-a-lifetime weather events.

Catherine Flowers contributed this article about tornadoes.

“Tornadoes have increased in intensity and frequency and destruction to the point that most of the state lies in the region called Dixie Alley. The state has been consistently ranked among the worst-hit by tornadoes in the country. We have to build resilience infrastructure and systems to protect the public health and prevent untimely death.”

Climate Change Can Be Reversed By Caring for Each Other

UAB School of Public Health Dean Dr.Paul Erwin and Dr.Jeff Wickliffe, Chair of UAB’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Photo via Pat Byington, Bham Now

Ranked as one among the top Public Health Schools in the nationUAB is ready to take on the greatest challenges facing our state, community, and the world. 

Alabama has many doubters about climate change. Dr. Wickliffe offers a solution.

“Whether you think there’s a problem with the climate or not —air pollution is a problem with or without climate change,” he explained. “Air pollution affects people’s health — so we should try to get ourselves to move towards producing energy in a way that doesn’t generate as much air pollution or even water pollution. There’s a lot of things that would help in this whole climate change and health space, that we really should be working on, irrespective of the whole climate change and health argument.”

Dr. Erwin summarized why UAB makes climate and health a priority in the School of Public Health.

“I’m an optimistic kind of person. This problem didn’t happen overnight. But we have the wherewithal to get us out of this.There are useful and adaptable strategies that we can use to collectively make a difference and I still want to believe collectively, we actually care about each other.”

The Series

View from King’s Chair at Oak Mountain State Park. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

The heels of COP26, one of the largest and most significant global climate change summits in history, we will examine the impacts of climate change in Alabama on people’s health, the local economy, life-saving research and our natural resources. We will also discuss solutions, initiatives, and ways individuals can do their part in addressing the climate crisis.

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