Climate change ‘playing havoc’ with health systems

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Global warming has brought an increase in heat-related deaths, food poisoning and tick-borne diseases, but flu pandemics may decline as temperatures rise, according to Jan Semenza, scientific advisor at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Since the outbreak of the swine flu pandemic, the ECDC has been in the spotlight as never before. However, at a conference in Stockholm last week (November 5), the agency sought to turn the spotlight on the ongoing public health risks posed by climate change. 

Semenza said the heat wave that gripped France in 2003 caused 70,000 deaths and could be a sign of things to come. On top of this, floods and heavy rain have caused a spike in water-borne illnesses – a trend likely to continue due to climate change. 

“Many infectious diseases have a strong climate link and ECDC aims to support EU member states to mount an effective response to these challenges in order to contain possible outbreaks and health problems,” said Semenza. 

He points to the arrival of Chikungunya, a tropical disease spread by the Asian Tiger Mosquitoes, in Italy where 200 people were affected. 

“The event per se was not caused by climate change, but climate played a role in the expansion of the mosquito that transmitted the disease,” he said. 

The ECDC has been developing distribution maps for the Asian Tiger mosquito and documenting its relationship to climatic variables. Another vector-borne disease, Tick-Borne Encephalitis, has been shown to expand in altitude and latitude in the Czech Republic and Sweden, where it was previously unknown.

However, Semenza says he does not anticipate an increase in flu pandemics. “A shortening of the winter season, as a result of climate change, might actually shorten the transmission period for the influenza virus,” he said. 

The ECDC has submitted a policy paper ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit next month and hopes health issues will become a bigger part of the climate debate, having been “largely overlooked” to date. 

Semenza noted that greenhouse gas emissions originate predominantly in developed countries while the biggest impact of climate change will be felt in developing countries. 

Jan Semenza was speaking to Gary Finnegan. 

To read the full text of this interview, please click here

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