Experts Debate Climate-Disease Link

Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
March 9, 1998

ATLANTA (AP) -- The spread of malaria and dengue fever in certain corners of the globe should not so easily be linked with global warming and climate change, disease experts said Monday.

"I think such an oversimplistic explanation is dangerous," said Dr. Paul Reiter, chief of entomology for the dengue branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "When we talk about emerging diseases, we are missing the boat, if we just mention climate."

Yet, climate experts maintain there are significant global trends that can't be overlooked. For example, malaria is occurring high in the mountains of central Africa and the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Those are the same areas where glaciers are retreating and plants are migrating upward.

"I am concerned because our environment is becoming more unstable," said Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. "I'm suggesting that some of these disease issues are symptoms of that instability."

The issue was among the most contentious Monday at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Reiter said the history of diseases such as malaria make him leery about chalking up the problem to climate change or warming. In the early 1920s, 16.5 million people suffered malaria in regions reaching the Arctic Circle, Reiter said.

Instead of sending all funds into exploring the link between climate and health, he said he would rather see more money invested in public health and vaccine programs in disease areas.

"The real danger has been the breakdown of public health programs, not five degrees in temperature," Reiter said.

But Epstein said climate and development need to be looked into as well.

"We are both concerned about health," he said. "I'm saying that I am concerned about climate and health, as well. It's going to take a whole new mindset to talk about how to develop without pollution."

Both may find solace in a current study coordinated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that looks at how this year's El Nino has affected health.

The study may lead to the development of new forecasting tools that offer early warning of conditions that cause disease.

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