Health on the back burner

A joint pilot study by Nurses Across the Borders, a Nigerian health NGO, and SeaTrust Institute, a US- based scientific and educational non-profit organization, will collect data to help map the impact of global warming on malaria in the West African country.

“The nurses will note if malaria is recorded in any area where it usually isn’t, and all this information will be fed into a climate model which will help prepare health-related climate change projections for the country,” said Dr Lynn Wilson, executive director of the Institute.

About 500 nurses in Lagos, Nigeria, will participate in the pilot project starting in 2011, officials of the organizations announced at a side event at the UN climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico. The initiative will also create awareness about the links between health and climate change at the community level.

Peters Omoragbon, who heads Nurses Across the Borders, said nurses were the primary healthcare givers in Nigeria and often the first point of contact during a disease outbreak.

Lack of data

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected that the already high burden of disease and vulnerability in Africa meant climate-related health impacts could be more severe than in other parts of the world.

Higher temperatures and altered rainfall patterns could potentially lead to an increase in the incidence of vector-born diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, onchocerciasis or river blindness, and trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness, the IPCC said in its last assessment.

The scientific body also noted that in Africa “little evidence exists of causal changes in disease transmission and climate”, but this did not mean these changes did not exist; “rather, it may reflect the lack of available epidemiological data as a result of poor or absent surveillance and health information systems”.

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Wilson pointed out that many developing countries lacked data to help them map the possible impact of climate change on health, and prepare for it.

More than 71 percent of Africa’s disease burden can be attributed to infectious diseases, with malaria the single greatest contributor (10.8 percent).

Nurses Across the Borders and SeaTrust Institute are part of a global health alliance that has been trying to focus more attention on health issues at the UN climate talks.

All the speakers at the side event, including Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, a senior scientist in the department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization (WHO), lamented the failure of the talks to recognize the impact of climate change on health.

Campbell-Lendrum, who has been lobbying for some years to get health put on the agenda at UN climate change talks, said the original text of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change had noted the impact of climate change on health, "but since then it has become a footnote”.

The UN Standing Committee on Nutrition has also been trying to make a case for nutrition at the talks.

Cristina Tirado, associate professor at the Centre for Global and Immigrant Health at the University of California, who drafted a policy brief on nutrition for negotiators, said undernutrition was the biggest health risk facing the world, a fact also noted by the IPCC.

In 2009 the International Food Policy Research Institute, a US-based think-tank, used climate models to show that in another four decades, higher average global temperatures would lead to water stress, causing food production and access to fall.

This could drive an additional 24 million children into hunger, and consequently increase their risk of climate-related health hazards.