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World Health Day: How can you make a difference?
Shilpa Shet
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April 07, 2008

Kunal Shah gets a cold every day. He was diagnosed with sinusitis first and then an allergy, and yet he continued to suffer sneezing fits and a blocked nose.

Finally, he decided to observe himself. He realised that he got a cold at around 5 pm every day. This baffled him. "I wasn't doing anything like eating ice-cream or cold stuff," he says. The problem was solved by an acquaintance who, interestingly, suffered the same problem.

"The reason, he said, was the temperature difference. I sit in an air-conditioned room all day. When I go for my tea break outside the office premises at around 4 pm, the sudden temperature difference causes the cold."

Something as insignificant as temperature differences can affect our health severely. And it's no wonder then that the theme for this World Health Day on April 7, 2008 is 'Protecting Health from Climate Change'.

Suddenly, it's not the environmentalists' problem, it's ours too.

Dr Alexander von Hildebrand, regional advisor for the South East Asia region of the World Health Organization (WHO) says, "The health risks posed by climate change are global, and difficult to reverse."

According to the WHO, the factors that cause health concerns are increasing temperature, extreme weather conditions, air-pollution, and food and water shortages.

Any change in the above factors is likely to impact the health of millions. It could be something as simple as an allergic cold (like Kunal's) or death of thousands due to a heat wave.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 18 heat waves were reported in India between 1980 and 1998. A heat wave in 1988 caused 1,300 deaths, while another in 2003 caused more than 3,000 deaths.

Rina D'mello, a nutritionist, from Mumbai says, "A lot of my patients complain of headaches and sudden viral infections. I personally feel that the weather changes are responsible for the influx of these symptoms."

People feel they can do very little about what is happening with the climate, she says. "However, being aware of climate changes and how it impacts our health is one big step towards making our future better."

The diseases that are likely to show a spurt are asthma, diarrhea, cholera, malaria, mental health, malnutrition, headaches.

We can merely suppress the condition for a while, says Rina. "You cannot avoid the climate," she adds, "We all will face these problems. The only way we can impact this is to change our lifestyles."

Governments of countries and organisations like the WHO are doing their bit to bring awareness about how we can stop global warming and other climate-related conditions. However, they add that even individuals can do a few things.

What can we do?
Here are some points collated by WHO experts:

~ Buy energy efficient appliances: Make informed choices. If you're buying a washing machine, refrigerator, dish-washer or oven, buy the most energy-efficient model you can afford. They might be more expensive but they pay for themselves through lower energy bills. The same is true for procurement of office equipment, such as computers, photocopiers and printers.

~ Enjoy the sun! Fit solar panels for your homes or your colony. Many new housing schemes boast of solar panels for heating water and lighting within the colony.

~ Don't leave fridge doors open for longer than necessary; let foods cool down fully before placing it in the fridge or freezer; defrost regularly and keep the appliance at the right temperature.

~ Go Green! If you have to buy a car, buy a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly one. This will save you money and keep more carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere. Make sure that your tires are inflated correctly -- this can save you 5 per cent on the cost of your petrol.

Try car pools with friends and colleagues. Make more use of public transport, such as the metro, train and bus for longer journeys. For short trips and local shopping, try walking or use a bicycle. It keeps you fit and is fun too!

~ Condition your air-conditioner. Halve your emissions by moving your air conditioner thermostat up by 5 degrees Celsius in the summer. Almost half of the energy we use in our homes goes to cooling. Maintain the filters on your air conditioners by cleaning them regularly. A clean air filter can save pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

~ Replace the bulbs you use most with compact fluorescent lamps or CFL bulbs. They cost more than ordinary lamps but you end up saving money because they use only about one-quarter of the electricity to provide the same light. And they last four times longer than normal light bulbs!

~ Minimise the use of toxic chemicals. Use non-toxic, biodegradable, water or plant-based paints, cleaners and pest repellents.

~ Turn off televisions, videos, stereos and computers when they are not in use -- they can consume between 10 and 60 per cent of the power when in "stand-by" mode. Turn off computer screens and photocopiers when you take a break. Also turn off lights when you don't need them, it saves energy after a minute or two. Unplug electronic items when you're not using them.

~ Plant trees in your office, your home, your society -- wherever you get the opportunity. You can have fun and make a valuable social contribution as the same time.

~ Quit plastic bags. Carry your own bag with you when going shopping.

~ Save paper by printing on both sides. Proofread documents on the screen before printing. Instead of making a copy for each person, route one copy around the office.

Do not discard one-sided printed pages; use them to make scratch pads.

~ Travel smart by reducing air travel. Traveling by plane contributes to significant carbon dioxide emissions leading to climate change.

~ Value wastes! Do not dump your home wastes everywhere. Heaps of garbage left in the open emit methane and contribute to global warming. Segregate your wastes so they can be recycled and/or reused and where possible use organic waste for composting.

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