Thursday, June 18, 2009

Climate change a major threat to health

By Ochieng' Ogodo

Climate change has mostly been associated with melting ice caps, rising sea levels that threatens coastal cities and nations, extreme weather changes that includes prolonged droughts and heavy flooding including unexpected flash floods.
But health experts are now saying there are pathogens that could spread to new regions as a result of climate change, with potential impacts to both human and wildlife health and the global economy according to a report The Deadly Dozen: Wildlife Diseases in the Age of Climate Change.
“There are a number of diseases that could spread fast into new regions as a result of climate change with prospective impacts on both human and wildlife health,” Dr. William Karesh, Vice President and Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society [WCS] Global Health Programmes says.
In East Africa , he points out malaria could escalate due to climate change causing more harm to health problems than now. They believe monitoring wildlife health holds key to knowing what is lurking around us and giving an opportunity to come up with measures for mitigation.
Africa will be hard hit
The report points out that Africa is one of the places that will be hit hard by deadly human-wildlife diseases that have become a major threat in the age of climate change according to the health experts.
WCS’s Assistant Director, Global Health Programme, Kristine Smith says the region was more vulnerable because majority of the people live in rural areas and interact with the wildlife that could carry some of these deadly pathogens.
She says there will be increase in diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, malaria and resurgence of others like sleeping sickness because of changes in temperatures and the environment.
“The rift valley fever, malaria and rinderpest are increasingly becoming both human and wildlife health problems in East Africa due to changes caused by global warming, and leading to extreme weather circumstances and great environmental changes,” she told the Sunday Express.
As new diseases attack wild animals, she says, it increases chances of an epidemic in surrounding communities. In areas where people mostly depend on bush meat, the chances are even higher as climate change negatively impacts on wildlife health.
Dr. Stevens E. Sanderson, President and the CEO of the WCS, speaking on their report says there are deadly diseases that threaten human and animals.
The deadly dozen include such diseases as avian influenza, ebola, cholera and tuberculosis but these are only illustrative of abroad range of infectious diseases. The experts said in addition to the health threats the diseases pose to human and wildlife population, the pathogens that originate or move through wildlife populations have destabilised trade and caused economic damage.
Several livestock disease that emerged in mid 1990s, avian influenza included, caused an estimated loss of US$100 billion to global economy.
“Emerging infectious diseases are a major threat to the health and economic stability of the world,” says Rosa DeLauro, a congresswoman and a champion for The Global Avian Influenza Network for Surveillance [GAIN] programme created in 1996.
According to the experts many wildlife pathogens have been the focus of monitoring but there is very little data on how these diseases will spread because of climate change. The dozen pathogens that may spread as a result of climate change, they stated, are avian influenza, babesiosis, cholera, Ebola, intestinal and external parasites, Lyme disease, plague, red tides, rift valley fever, sleeping sickness, tuberculosis and yellow fever.
Early warning systems
One of the ways for the region and the rest of the world to deal with these increased threats of disease crossing from wild animals to humans, which will be further fuelled by climate change, is the need for early warning systems
"Building warning systems and doing disease surveillance in places like the Congo basin would be cheaper than building expensive machines to control an outbreak," says Karesh.
According to the expert, early warning systems include monitoring disease patterns in wild animals, environmental changes and how they affect the wild animals and the pathogens behaviour because of the changing temperatures and precipitation caused by climate change.
Continuous testing of the wildlife for pathogens could also be an invaluable part of this monitoring system. “Wild animals are more susceptible to new diseases than domesticated animals and are good indicators of an impending outbreak,” he says.
These, he says, does not only offer fertile grounds for building early warning systems but also areas that could be researched on.
He states there are many wildlife pathogens, like Ebola in the Congo area that may be spread as a result of the changing temperatures and precipitation caused by climate change.
For Karesh African governments and the international community should, among others, train local people on how to detect signs of such diseases when they are about to occur by monitoring the behaviour of and wildlife and the seasonality changes.
Sanderson said the health of wild animals is tightly linked t the ecosystem in which they live and influenced by the environment surrounding them.
“Even minor disturbances can have reaching consequences on what diseases they might encounters and transmit as climate changes,” he says. Monitoring wildlife health can, therefore, enable people predict where the trouble spots will occur and set in motion measures to counter.
“The monitoring of wildlife health provides us with a sensitive and quantitative means of detecting changes in the environment. Wildlife monitoring provides a new lens to see what is changing around us and will help governments, agencies and communities detect and mitigate threats before they become disasters, says Karesh
“What we have learnt from the WCS and the GAINS programme is that monitoring of wildlife populations for potential health threats is essential in our preparedness and prevention strategy and expanding monitoring beyond bird flu to other deadly diseases must be our immediate next step,” states DeLauro
Indigenious knowledge
Michael Kocke, also a veterinarian of the WCS, calls for the tapping of indigenous knowledge to deal with these diseases. “Indigenous knowledge can reveal past occurrence of some of these diseases and how they were dealt with including herbs used then to treat them. Scientist can then do research using conventional scientific technology and methods on how to deal with them,” he says.
He says in Africa most people, especially in rural areas, have interacted closely with wildlife and there could be a wealth of information out there that needs researching on.
Indigenious knowledge, Kock says, is vital and should be combined with conventional research for results. Karesh concurred saying that indigenous knowledge can add context to what is going on in the laboratories
Smith believes that building warning systems will also help design adaptation measures like when people should eat what foods and what to avoid when. For instance, this will help people to know when some of the wildlife people consume their meat could be on the verge of infection and they should, therefore, be avoided. This will also help earmark the disease and what needs to be done.
According to Kock climate will complicate the problem of HIV/Aids as those suffering from virus related ailments have their immunity compromised and low nutrition levels may worsen with this. “Climate change is a big issue both the developing and the developed world. The vector range is expanding because of it and more people are getting exposed,” says Kock.
The best defence, according to the experts, is a good offence in the form of wildlife monitoring to detect how diseases are moving so health professionals can learn and prepare to mitigate their impact.

**Ochieng’ Ogodo is a Nairobi journalist whose works have been published in various parts of the world including Africa, the US and Europe. He is the English-speaking Africa and Middle East region winner for the 2008 Reuters-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He can be reached at or

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