UW school of public health joins White House in climate change commitment

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In light of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, UW&rsquo;s school of public health and health systems (SPHHS) has joined the White House climate change commitment, becoming one of the 118 schools addressing rising health concerns related to climate change.</p>

Climate change poses a great threat to health, especially in the case of drastic weathers such as heat waves, smog days, and longer allergy seasons. Craig Janes,  professor and director of SPHHS at UW, expressed that adaptation to the issue is crucial if we want to be more effective when dealing with the effects of climate change. 

“Climate change is going to happen whether we like it or not, … How do we facilitate adaptation so that it has the least harmful effects?” Janes said, adding on, “It’s really almost a moral imperative that schools of public health take this on.” This adaptation is a necessity, especially when people’s lives are at stake. According to Janes, one of the main areas of concern related to climate change is of refugee movements. 

“Whereas you have sea levels rise, whereas droughts, and collapse of agricultural systems and everything else, [there are] people being forced out of their homes and having to flee to other areas, … You have issues around livelihood, security, food security, malnutrition, lack of safe and clean water, [and] diarrheal diseases, … there’s a variety of things related to that; that fundamental driver of refugee movements or migration related to climate change. 

“The second big area that people are very concerned about has to do with the impact of climate change on a number of infectious diseases,” he said. 

Several years ago, Janes looked at the Northward migration of mosquitoes carrying yellow and dengue fever. “All of the waterborne diseases will shift as water systems change [and] in all the vector borne diseases that are based in water … a variety of mosquito or vector-borne diseases are sensitive to ecological changes, [and] potentially with the expansion of ecological ranges of these mosquitoes, you might very well see outbreaks of dengue fever in North America, for example.” 

The World Health Organization has defined vector-borne diseases as “living organisms that can transmit infectious diseases between humans or from animals to humans.”

With this, Janes also mentioned, “There has been significant progress in public health, particularly with the use of bed mats and other sorts of things to really control [diseases like] malaria, so we see dropping mortality, but there’s a worry that with accelerating climate changes and particularly changes to rainfall patterns, wetlands, and ideal mosquito breeding grounds, [we] might see a kind of recrudescence of malaria related morbidity and mortality.”

According to the White House fact sheet on the commitment, called “Health Educators Climate Commitment,” climate change has proven to be a great threat to health. This is especially harmful as weather patterns become more drastic and dangerous, and air and fresh water systems become increasingly polluted. Health professionals around the world “are taking action to build resilience in the health sector, and in sectors that affect the determinants of health. And they are working to identify the large health co-benefits that accrue when communities transition to clean energy.”

 “Part of [joining the commitment] is just simply advocacy in the sense that we want to speak with one voice with other public health scientists in the world,” said Janes. “Each of us as individuals or each of us as institutions can certainly express our concern, but I think joining with a much larger group gives our voice a little bit more volume than would otherwise… The second part I think is really to demonstrate our commitment, Waterloo, to this very important issue, and to express not only our concern, but [also] our plans and our vision to include this into our educational programs.”

Janes expressed that in the long run, they hope to work on this important issue with other faculties such as the faculty of environment, as well as across different schools. 

“This is really the major public health threat of the 21st century,” he said. “I don’t think you can downplay that at all; it is a major issue, and I think we really need to take it on. The more hands the better.”

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