|On the Front Lines of Climate Change: Gauging Health Threats, Offering Solutions|
There is ample evidence that global warming is leading to the spread of diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus, leading to increased efforts to consider climate change as a public health issue.
Dan Ferber is not one to say, "we told you so."
But when the European group DARA released a report in September showing climate change and a carbon-intensive economy were to blame for 5 million deaths a year, the journalist who co-authored "Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It," was not surprised.
"It is a ginormous problem," Ferber told a crowd gathered at a Sept. 28 BUSPH forum-- part of the Gijs van Seventer Environmental Health Seminar series. "The impacts on health are enormous."
Ferber told stories of researching climate change with his co-author, the late Paul Epstein, MD, associate director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Their book discusses how global warming and greenhouse emissions impact diseases including malaria, Lyme disease and asthma. Ferber, a science writer, chronicled what he called Epstein's "audacious" and extensive work to try to slow climate change.
The bad news from the front lines: There is ample evidence that global warming already is leading to the spread of diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus. The good news: "Every single one of the policies and technologies [needed to slow global warming] is beyond the lab bench," Ferber said. "They're real" and achievable.
Ferber said predicting health epidemics is critical to protecting public health. He told of shadowing a researcher in the central Kenya highlands who collected and tested mosquitoes in an effort to create models forecasting the spread of malaria over time. As temperatures rise, malaria parasites in mosquitoes develop faster. The researcher wanted to sound an early warning to help guide future prevention and treatment.
Such ambitious projections are one of the "rays of hope" that Epstein talked about, because they allow health officials to move early to protect the public, Ferber said.
In the U.S., the incidence of West Nile virus and Lyme disease also are influenced by global warming. The incidence of Lyme disease has increased dramatically in New Hampshire and Maine in recent years, Ferber said.
"There's a bunch of diseases that are going to expand in range, like malaria," he said.
Global warming, caused largely by excess greenhouse gases, contributes to respiratory diseases, as well as infectious diseases, Ferber noted. Climate change also harms health by causing extreme weather -- from heat waves to flooding to drought. Last year, an estimated 60 percent of the U.S. experienced extreme weather -- a percentage that has been climbing, Ferber said.
Ferber laid out a number of solutions to offset global warming: from individual efforts such as bicycling, to government policies increasing the fuel economy of cars, to replacing coal-fired plants and increasing wind generation. He said he was heartened that, "even though Washington is paralyzed on this issue, towns and cities are not. They are doing creative things," such as promoting mass transit and 'green' buildings.
"We have to change the private sector," Ferber said. "Government is not enough."
He said Epstein, who died last year, "leaves a tremendous legacy to carry on," and he encouraged public health practitioners to play a role in that effort.
The Gijs van Seventer Environmental Health Seminar series is a multi-disciplinary program of events featuring local and international experts on the direct and indirect effects of climate change on human health. Topics will include extreme weather events, air and water quality, food and water shortages, vector-borne diseases and changes in ecosystems, social and economic disruptions, and policy solutions to address all these effects.
Submitted by: Lisa Chedekel