(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Disease outbreaks blamed on climate change

[Kenya] Opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Nairobi, Kenya, 6 November 2006.
Siegfried Modola/IRIN

Climate change is to blame for health problems such as increasing epidemics of malaria and water-borne diseases in Africa, heat wave-related deaths in Europe and the high incidence of cerebral-cardiovascular conditions in China, specialists said on Tuesday while calling for appropriate public-health responses to tackle the problem.

"The resurgence of disease outbreaks calls for better climate surveillance and response and better health planning in coping with natural disasters," said Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, a scientist with the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO).

"As we impact on the climate, it is unreasonable to think that this will not impact on health," he added during a presentation planned to coincide with the ongoing UN climate change conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Industrialised nations, the principal emitters of the greenhouse gases blamed for contributing to climate change, were "loading health risks on developing countries", said Campbell-Lendrum.

Malaria has become a major health problem in the highlands of western Kenya where the disease had been rare, a phenomenon blamed on rising temperatures in the region, according to Solomom Nzioka, the officer in charge of public health at Kenya's Ministry of Health. A unit of temperature rise resulted in a 10-fold increase in mosquito density, he said. The mosquito is the vector that transmits the malaria parasite.

"During intense transmission [of malaria] in altitudes above 2000 metres, where our highlands lie, temperatures are higher than normal," Nzioka said.

Scientists have warned that global warming could worsen over the coming decades and UN officials have called for more attention to be paid to how climate change might be affecting health. Heat waves caused thousands of deaths in Europe in 2003.

"There is a need for the re-orientation of health structures to incorporate climate change," Kristie Ebi, a public health consultant, said.

In the Americas, there had been a return of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, responsible for the transmission of yellow fever and Dengue fever, she said. That type of mosquito had been almost wiped out in control programmes in the 1970s. Its re-emergence led to the outbreak of the Dengue fever in Brazil with 800 deaths in 2003, she said.

New cases of malaria had also been reported in Turkey and Azerbaijan, according to Bettina Menne, a WHO hygiene specialist.

There is also an increase of between five to 10 percent in the occurrence of the salmonella bacteria, the germ that causes typhoid fever and other foodborne illnesses, for every one-degree rise in weekly temperatures in Europe, she said.

"Climate change will put a large strain on the health sector," said Mozaharul Alam, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.

China has the highest incidence of cerebral-cardiovascular conditions - which have been blamed on rising temperatures - in the world, costing the economy US$2.5 billion in losses each year, said Jin Yinglong, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health in China.

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