Researchers Outline Growing Health Effects Of Global Warming On Regional Scale

In a recent assessment, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that human-induced changes in the Earth's climate now lead to at least 5 million cases of illness and more than 150,000 deaths every year.

Temperature fluctuations may sway human health in a surprising number of ways, scientists have learned, from influencing the spread of infectious diseases to boosting the likelihood of illness-inducing heat waves and floods.

Now, in a synthesis report featured on the cover of the journal Nature, a team of health and climate scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the WHO has shown that the growing health impacts of climate change affect different regions in markedly different ways. The places that have contributed the least to warming the Earth are the most vulnerable to the death and disease higher temperatures can bring, the researchers stated on Nov. 16.

"Those least able to cope and least responsible for the greenhouse gases that cause global warming are most affected," said lead author Jonathan Patz, a professor at UW-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (http://www.sage.wisc.edu/people/patz/patz.html). "Herein lies an enormous global ethical challenge."

According to the Nature report, regions at highest risk for enduring the health effects of climate change include coastlines along the Pacific and Indian Oceans and sub-Saharan Africa. Large sprawling cities, with their urban "heat island" effect, are also prone to temperature-related health problems.

Africa has some of the lowest per capita emissions of greenhouse gases. Yet, regions of the continent are gravely at risk for warming-related disease. "Many of the most important diseases in poor countries, from malaria to diarrhea and malnutrition, are highly sensitive to climate," said co-author Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum of the WHO. "The health sector is already struggling to control these diseases, and climate change threatens to undermine these efforts."

"Recent extreme climatic events have underscored the risks to human health and survival," said Tony McMichael, director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. "This synthesizing paper points the way to strategic research that better assesses the risks to health from global climate change."

The UW-Madison and WHO assessment appears only weeks before global leaders convene in Montreal during the first meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in February 2005. Patz also will deliver the keynote address at a parallel WHO/Health Canada event.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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