Sun, Nov 29, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Climate change driving the spread of tropical diseases worldwide

Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar said that threats to human health caused by global warming have not received proper attention from world leaders

By Robin McKie  /  The Observer

Epidemics of dengue fever and other tropical diseases could soon affect people in Britain because of global warming, one of the world’s leading medical experts has warned. Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar said he also believed many other serious health threats triggered by climate change — including malnutrition and early deaths from air pollution — had already begun to affect the planet.

However, these dangers were not being given proper attention by world leaders, added Farrar, an expert on infectious diseases. Climate negotiators heading to Paris this month did not appear to have understood the widespread impact that global warming has already had on Earth.

“I don’t think the health community has had a big enough input into climate talks,” Farrar told the Observer. “Bodies like the World Health Organization have not made their voices heard.”

His stark warning adds another worrying dimension to the threat posed to human welfare by rising carbon emissions. Farrar, 53, worked for 18 years in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, researching potential human pandemics such as bird flu and SARS.

Two years ago he was appointed director of the Wellcome Trust, and from this perspective he now argues that the health dangers posed by climate change have been seriously underestimated.

“When you talk about climate change to people in general, they think of loss of habitat, loss of ice cap or loss of coral reef. They don’t think of its health impacts, but they affect us today, never mind our children or our grandchildren. This is not some abstract threat, it is immediate and it is personal,” Farrar said.

Farrar sees three particular threats to the health and well-being of humanity: the spread of infectious diseases; the linked issues of pollution and urbanization; and the threat of worsening migration.

In the case of infectious disease, he dismissed the idea that malaria was the most obvious problem. His real fear was dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease that causes fever, headaches and — on occasions — dangerous drops in blood pressure. There is no known vaccine and no specific treatment. About 2.5 percent of cases prove fatal.

“Before 1970, only seven countries had experienced serious dengue outbreaks,” Farrar said.

“Today, it has taken a hold in more than 100 countries. We have had outbreaks in Spain, Italy and Florida, and it is not unreasonable to think there will be dengue transmission in the southern UK in years to come,” Farrar said.

“I am not saying it is coming overnight, but it wasn’t in Florida or Spain a couple of decades ago and it is starting to appear there. Other viral diseases, such as yellow fever and West Nile fever, may also follow suit,” he added.

Rising global temperatures, humidity and spreading urbanization are the specific drivers of the disease’s spread, Farrar said, because its vector, the Aedes genus mosquito, likes heat and has become urban-adapted.

“Climate change — along with environmental change in general — is clearly implicated,” he said.

On its own, migration is not a threat to well-being, but its root cause — malnutrition — certainly does have health consequences. And in a world where sea levels are inexorably rising while rich coastal land faces inundation, this presents another reason for worry.

Farrar cited the Mekong basin in Vietnam as an example.

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