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ENVIRONMENT: Health – a Victim of Climate Change

Diego Cevallos

MÉRIDA, Mexico, Dec 2 2008 (IPS) - More malaria, diarrhea, and asthma: these diseases are on the rise around the world because of environmental destruction and kill some three million children under five and two million adults a year.

"The scientific evidence of the impact of the environment on health is growing, but greater international cooperation is needed, as are local efforts to reflect that evidence in public policies, and that’s why we are here," Carlos Corvalán, a Chilean researcher and adviser to the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), told IPS.

Corvalán, along with around 600 academics, scientists, government officials and members of social organisations from 82 countries, is taking part in the Dec. 1-5 International Ecohealth Forum 2008 in Mérida, a city on Mexico’s southeastern Yucatan peninsula, to share findings on how ecohealth approaches can tackle pressing global issues such as climate change, food security, disease, and economic development.

"We are here to share new evidence and findings; these are the weapons with which we can go to the developed countries and demand the money and support that we need, while also urging them to join in the efforts," Marilyn Aparicio, an expert with Bolivia’s National Climate Change Programme, told IPS.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), diarrhea kills more than 1.6 million children a year, due to polluted water and deficient sanitation. In addition, nearly one million children a year die of acute respiratory infections linked to domestic smoke and the use of firewood in their kitchens.

WHO also reported that air pollution causes around two million premature deaths in adults annually.

An estimated 24 percent of global disease, and more than 33 percent of disease among children, is caused by avoidable environmental exposures, WHO estimates.

Mercedes Pascual, a biology professor at the University of Michigan who has carried out research into the resurgence of malaria in the highlands of East Africa, said at the Ecohealth Forum that the incidence of the mosquito-borne disease was increasing in proportion to the rise in temperature.

Temperature is not the only factor driving the increase in malaria, but the data indicates that it has a clear influence, said Pascual, who clarified, however, that associated factors must not be ruled out.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned in a report that the loss of forests, the building of roads and dams, the spread of cities, the clearing of natural habitats for agriculture, mining, and the pollution of coastal waters "are promoting conditions under which new and old pathogens – bacteria, viruses and microorganisms causing diseases – can thrive."

A study by Johns Hopkins University in Maryland says that even a one percent increase in deforestation in Peru increases the number of malaria-bearing mosquitoes by eight percent. The study also reported that the mosquitoes "ran wild" after 30 to 40 percent of the forest was destroyed.

Mosquitoes can transmit more than 100 viruses that infect humans, including dengue fever, yellow fever, and sometimes fatal encephalitis and haemorrhagic fever.

UNEP also cites a study that shows that in gem-mining areas in Sri Lanka, the shallow pits left behind by miners are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes and "epicentres of malaria."

"Developed countries are mainly responsible for climate change, with their unbridled consumerism, which is why they must assume responsibility and support the (developing) South in its efforts to overcome the damages caused to our health," said Aparicio.

After U.S. President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January, "we hope that country will change its attitude and begin to respond," she added.

WHO reports that more than half of the disease burden from air pollution falls on people in developing countries.

In Corvalán’s view, the current global financial crisis could have an impact on the availability of funds for research and programmes on health and the environment. "Many think that will happen, which means that it is now up to us to be creative and to get moving in developing countries," he said.

The Ecohealth Forum is organised by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), PAHO, Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, the International Association for Ecology and Health, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation of Brazil, the Institute of Ecological Research of Brazil, and the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.

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