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.
“You would not be able to grow rice there any more if it is inundated — and that would be devastating. Vietnam is now one of the world’s largest exporters of rice. However, that will stop if the Mekong is swamped with salt water. You cannot grow rice in salt water. Yet, we get three crops of particularly nutritional rice a year from the Mekong at present. We could lose all of that — one of the world’s great food supplies,” Farrar said.
Such a loss would cause widespread malnutrition and trigger massive migration, as waves of people left to find food elsewhere.
“We have all been troubled by dreadful scenes of migration from Syria, but imagine that on a scale 10 times worse as people flee Dhaka or Jakarta or the Mekong. Yet it is a real prospect,” Farrar said.
The problem is only worsened by the fact that the world’s population is expected to rise from 7 billion to 9 billion by the end of the century, an extra 2 billion who will have to be fed from threatened food sources.
Then there is the issue of worsening pollution. This is triggered not so much by climate change, but by the cause of global warming itself: the burning of fossil fuels both inside and outside of homes, Farrar said. Cooking stoves that pump harmful gases into homes and filthy exhausts from cars and scooters in cities across Asia play a part in raising global temperatures, because they raise carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. However, they also wreak havoc with public health.
“Pollution in the air causes between 7 [million] and 8 million premature deaths a year,” Farrar said. “By contrast, malaria kills around 600,000, while HIV is responsible for between 1 [million] and 2 million deaths a year. That is an incredible death toll.”
“I am sure there will be some sort of agreement coming out of the climate talks in Paris later this month, but it will have to be followed up with real rigor. We will be in deep trouble if it is not,” he added.
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