Friday, April 04, 2008

National Public Health Week to connect climate change and our health

Today's entry is written by guest blogger Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, FACEP (E), executive director of the American Public Health Association

What does global warming have to do with the Get Ready blog? A lot. Recent changes in our global climate have resulted in an increase of infectious disease in unexpected places.

Consider West Nile virus, which is native to Africa. The disease was first transmitted in the United States in 1999, killing seven people in New York. How did a little-known virus from a tropical climate manage to survive and thrive in the northeast United States? Scientists found that the unseasonably warm winter of 1998-1999 was followed by a long drought in the summer. Drought conditions contributed to the survival of mosquito larvae that need stagnant pools of water to thrive. These factors created a "perfect storm" for mosquitoes to transmit the West Nile virus more frequently and for a longer period of time to humans.

West Nile virus has now become established in the United States -- with 177 deaths and 4,270 cases of illness last year -- and is harbinger of what's to come as our climate shifts to warmer, more extreme weather conditions. The West Nile virus deaths are but one example of how warming conditions can impact human health.

Mosquitoes are only one form of disease transmission -- and they transmit other diseases too, including yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria and encephalitis. Severe storms caused by warmer weather result in greater runoff from sewage, fertilizers and other toxic substances. This increased runoff infects seafood and drinking water, and can lead to diseases spread through water-borne pathogens such as cholera.

Continued climate change will disrupt human life dramatically. But in no way will the impact be greater than in the cost to human health. The direct impact of severe weather is often seen immediately, in the death toll that results from hurricanes and tornadoes. However, there is a less obvious, but even more insidious toll that results from a warming climate: the suffering and deaths that result from infectious disease. In order to prevent unnecessary suffering and premature loss of life, we must begin to take what steps we can to slow climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, conserving and protecting drinking water, and recognizing the role of our consumption-based lifestyles on our own health and well-being.

Next week, April 7-13, communities across the country will celebrate National Public Health Week and help make the connection between climate change and health. Learn more about the health impacts of climate change and what steps you can take to improve your health and the health of the planet at

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