SEATTLE — A University of Washington professor warns that climate change could have devastating impacts on human health, including smoke from wildfires and an increase in vector-borne diseases.

Hundreds of people died as a result of Washington wildfire smoke in just one year, according to a study released this month from the Natural Resources Defense Council. The organization reports wildfire smoke killed 245 people, both directly and indirectly in 2012. According to the new study, the cost of those deaths sit at $2.2 billion with $55 million spent dealing with associated illnesses.

Dr. Kristie Ebi, a professor with the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington, said even though Washington's air quality this last summer was much better than summer 2018, climate change is still happening and approaching very fast. 

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Ebi said as temperatures rise in Washington, heat-related illnesses are a huge concern, but also a greater prevalence of mosquitoes which can carry vector-borne diseases.

"If, for example, we did have an outbreak for a vector-borne disease or if we did have a big heatwave, [we need to make sure] that our systems are prepared to handle extra hospitalizations, extra people coming into urgent care and make sure that they are treated quickly and appropriately," said Ebi. "There needs to be greater awareness among our healthcare providers and our healthcare infrastructure about climate change and what it can do for health, the kinds of changes that can be expected in the state of Washington."

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Ebi said not only do people need to be aware of the problem, but the healthcare sector which makes up 10% of our emissions, needs to figure out ways to become more energy efficient without harming patients.

She said individuals can also do their part by riding a bike instead of driving, or even becoming healthier to prepare for the climate changes to come.

"I've been working on climate change issues for almost 25 years and all of us that are working in the field, for several decades, comment that, [looking] at the projections from a couple decades ago, we are way past where we thought we would be," said Ebi. "It's critically important that we become much better prepared to ensure being more proactive to protect and promote our health as the climate continues to change."