The Intersection of Health Sciences and Geography

While many diseases that affect humans have been eradicated due to improvements in vaccinations and availability there are still areas around the world where certain health issues are more prevalent. With an increasingly globalized world coming into contact with one another through travel and living closer and closer to each other super viruses and other anti-biotic resistant infections are growing in commonality.

Geography and Health

Geography can often play a very large role in the health concerns of certain populations. For instance, depending on where you live you will have different health concerns than someone who lives in a different geographical region than you. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this idea is malaria-prone areas, which are usually tropical regions that foster a warm and damp environment in which mosquitos can grow. Malaria is not as big of a problem in high deserts or very developed nations.


Ad:


Map showing which countries are at risk of malaria.

Map showing which countries are at risk of malaria. Source data: CDC – Malaria Risk Information and Prophylaxis by Country.

China is another example of geographical factors influencing the health and well-being of its population. The geography of major Chinese cities is such that the wind is not enough to clear the air of the massive amounts of smog and pollution that cause asthma, lung problems, eyesight issues and more in the Chinese people who live there. Part of the problem is, of course, the massive number of cars being driven in addition to factories that still run on coal power. The quick industrialization of China also led to the cutting down of forests near the big cities which makes it even harder to fight the pollution with fresh air produced by plants.

This true-color image over eastern China was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), flying aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, on Oct. 16, 2002. The scene reveals dozens of fires burning on the surface (red dots) and a thick pall of smoke and haze (greyish pixels) filling the skies overhead. Notice in the high-resolution version of this image how the smog fills the valleys and courses around the contours of the terrain in China’s hilly and mountainous regions. The terrain higher in elevation is less obscured by the smog than the lower lying plains and valleys in the surrounding countryside. This scene spans roughly from Beijing (near top center) to the Yangtze River, the mouth of which can be seen toward the bottom right. Toward the upper right corner, the Bo Hai Bay is rather obscured by the plume of pollution blowing eastward toward Korea and the Pacific Ocean. Toward the bottom right, the Yangtze River is depositing its brownish, sediment-laden waters into the Yellow Sea.

This true-color image over eastern China was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), flying aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, on Oct. 16, 2002. The scene reveals dozens of fires burning on the surface (red dots) and a thick pall of smoke and haze (greyish pixels) filling the skies overhead. Notice in the high-resolution version of this image how the smog fills the valleys and courses around the contours of the terrain in China’s hilly and mountainous regions. The terrain higher in elevation is less obscured by the smog than the lower lying plains and valleys in the surrounding countryside.
This scene spans roughly from Beijing (near top center) to the Yangtze River, the mouth of which can be seen toward the bottom right. Toward the upper right corner, the Bo Hai Bay is rather obscured by the plume of pollution blowing eastward toward Korea and the Pacific Ocean. Toward the bottom right, the Yangtze River is depositing its brownish, sediment-laden waters into the Yellow Sea.

Field of Health Geography

In steps the field of health geography, an increasingly important area of study in a world where diseases like polio are reemerging, MERS continues to spread, and malaria-prone areas are still fighting to find a better cure. Health geography is the combination of knowledge regarding geography and geographical methods and the study if health, diseases, and health care practices around the world to create solutions for common geography-based health problems.

While people will always be prone to illness the study of how geography affects our health could lead to the eradication of certain illnesses and the prevention of others in the future. By understanding why and how we get sick we can change the way we treat illness and disease specific to certain geographical locations.

The field of health geography is divided into two subgroups, one which focuses on health care provision specific to geographical location and the other of which studies the geographies of diseases and other healthcare concerns.

The geography of disease and ill health analyses the frequency of which certain diseases appear in different parts of the world and overlays that data with the geography of the region to see if there could be a correlation between the two. These health geographers also study factors that could make certain individuals or a population more likely to be taken ill with a specific health concern or disease over a different population in another area. Health geographers in this region are usually trained as health care workers and have an understanding of basic epidemiology as it relates to the spread of diseases among the population.

The geographies of disease and health researchers study the interactions between humans and their environment that could lead to illness (such as asthma in China) and work to create a clear way of categorizing illnesses, diseases and epidemics into local and global scales. Health geographers can map the spread of illnesses and theorize the reasons behind the increase or decrease in illnesses as they work to find a way to halt the further spread or reemergence of diseases in vulnerable populations.

The second subcategory of health geography is the geography of health care provision. This group studies the availability (or lack thereof) of health care resources to individuals and populations around the world. Even in developed nations there is often a very large discrepancy between the health care options available to people in different social classes, income bracket, and level of education. Individuals working in the area of geography of health care provision work to assess the levels of health care available in a certain region and the barriers to increasing the level of health care in the area (for instance, there is a mountain between a village and the nearest hospital which makes it very difficult for people to get medical attention). These researchers are on the frontlines of making policy recommendations for international organizations, local governments and more.

The field of health geography is often overlooked, but it constitutes a huge area of need in the fields of geography and in health care. If we can understand how geography affects our health no matter where in the world we are located we can better treat disease, prevent illnesses, and keep people safe and sound.

Further reading: Overview of Public Health and GIS

References:

Klinkenberg, Brian. GEOB 479, What is Health Geography? http://www.geog.ubc.ca/courses/geob479/notes/lecture5.html

Health Day: News for Healthier Living. Geography, Income Determine Health Care in U.S., Report Says. 18 September 2013. http://consumer.healthday.com/respitory-and-allergy-information-2/asthma-news-47/u-s-health-care-inequalities-documented-in-new-report-680258.html