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New research: Health trajectories following climate-related disasters

We've known for a while that climate change is the biggest health threat of our time, for a number of reasons including exposure to climate induced natural disasters. New research maps out the short-term and long-term mental and physical health trajectories are if someone is exposed to climate-related disaster. 

We spoke to one of the research co-authors, Mathew Toll from the University of Melbourne, and this is what he had to say about the study:

"Being aware about the very real impacts of climate change on human health can spur mitigation efforts and knowing about vulnerability within the community is needed for any efforts to increase our resilience in a changed climate."

Bushfire smoke

Research Paper:
'Vulnerability and recovery: Long-term mental and physical health trajectories following climate-related disasters'

Ang LiMathew Toll, Erika Martino, Ilan Wiesel, Ferdi Botha, Rebecca Bentley

Key Findings

  • Most people exposed to disaster experienced low health impacts.

  • One fifth experienced large health decreases and slow recovery post-disaster.

  • Pre-disaster poor health increased risk for severe physical impacts by 51%.

  • Pre-disaster poor health increased risk for severe mental impacts by 61%.

  • Adaptation to climate-related disasters requires understanding prior vulnerability.



'Extreme weather and climate-related disaster events are associated with a range of adverse health outcomes. People are not equally vulnerable to the adversity, experiencing varied patterns of long-term health trajectories in recovery depending on their vulnerabilities, capacities, and resiliencies. This study aims to identify latent mental and physical health trajectories and their associations with person- and place-based pre-disaster predictors.

Using an Australian, population-based, longitudinal dataset spanning 2009–19, group-based multi-trajectory modelling was applied to identify the distinct mental, social, emotional, and physical health trajectories of people who had experienced damage to their home following a climate-related disaster event. Multinomial logistic regression was used to assess a series of social vulnerability predictors (demographic, socioeconomic, housing, health, neighbourhood, and geographical) of health patterns.

We identified three distinct health trajectories. Most individuals experienced small or minimal health impacts at the time of the disaster year followed by a fast recovery. However, one-fifth of the exposed population were severely affected during and post disaster. This cohort had the worst mental and physical health prior to the disaster and experienced the largest decreases in mental and physical health and the lowest recoveries. Pre-existing mental and physical conditions were the most substantial risk factors, increasing the probability of experiencing high impact and slow recovery by 61% for mental health and 51% for physical health. In addition, vulnerability in the form of housing affordability stress, lower household income, and lack of community attachment, participation and safety were also significant independent risk factors for ongoing post-disaster health problems.

Critically, people's mental and physical health recovery is dependent on pre-disaster vulnerabilities in health, resource access, and capacities. These findings could assist policymakers and health practitioners to more effectively target people most at risk and design prevention and response strategies to prevent the exacerbation of poor health and wellbeing.'


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