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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Global Warming May Exceed Infections as Health Threat

By Michelle Fay Cortez and Alex Morales

May 14 (Bloomberg) -- Global warming is the biggest public health threat of the 21st century, eclipsing infectious diseases, water shortages and poverty, a team of medical and climate-change researchers concluded.

The phenomenon will be felt first in the developing world, further burdening a population already in crisis from food shortages, said the report from University College London that was published today in The Lancet journal. The changing climate will also cause real and lasting damage to the Western world, affecting generations to come, said Anthony Costello, a pediatrician at University College London.

"Climate change is a health issue affecting billions of people, not just an environmental issue about polar bears and deforestation," Costello said during a news conference. "We are setting up a world for our children and grandchildren that may be extremely frightening and turbulent."

A warmer planet will flood cities, leading to mass migration of coastal-dwelling residents and triggering wars as resources such as food and water become scarcer, the researchers said. Rising temperatures will spread diseases like malaria and increase deaths from flooding, drought and more intense storms.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 estimated temperatures this century will warm by 1.1 degrees to 6.4 degrees Celsius (2 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit), causing sea levels to rise 18 centimeters to 59 centimeters (7 to 23 inches).

'Genie Back in Bottle'

"We can't wait for climate change to bite because we won't be able to put the genie back into the bottle," Hugh Montgomery, director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London, said in an interview. "Once catastrophe strikes, it's too late. We need to create a literate population that is aware of the situation because until we do, there is no hope."

Warmer temperatures exacerbate existing health problems, the researchers said. Climate change expands the area that diseases such as malaria can spread, they said, using a map of Zimbabwe to illustrate the range over which the mosquitoes that spread the illness can live now and in a climate-warmed future.

Increased flooding can add to the spread of illnesses in richer nations as well by causing sewers to overflow into rivers and the water table, the UCL scientists said.

The health sector "has not just underestimated but it has neglected and ignored this issue," said The Lancet's editor, Richard Horton. "This has not been an issue on the agenda for any professional body in health over the last 10 years in a significant way."

Diarrhea, Disability

The world's population lost 5.5 million years due to premature death and quality of life reduced by disability in 2000, the most recent year the calculation was made, as a result of climate change, the researchers wrote. That's due to deaths caused by heart disease, diarrhea, malaria, malnutrition and injury from coastal flooding and landslides. Further temperature rises are inflating that number, they said.

"Small increases in the risk for climate-sensitive conditions, such as diarrhea and malnutrition, could result in very large increases in the total disease burden," the scientists wrote in the 41-page report commissioned from UCL by The Lancet.

Countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere might derive immediate health and financial benefits from tackling global warming, Costello said.

Deadly Heat, Hurricanes

"If we move society toward a low-energy, low-carbon lifestyle, we will have reduced levels of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease from pollution and obviously stress," he said. "We would also have fewer accidents, cleaner cities and better public transport. All of these advantages must be emphasized to the general public rather than just the alarmist views of death and destruction."

Many countries already have reported impacts of climate change. While it's nearly impossible for scientists to point to a single natural disaster and identify its cause, the growing number of deadly heat waves and catastrophes like hurricanes and floods are clearly tied to climate change, the researchers said.

A heat wave across Europe in 2003 cost as many as 70,000 people their lives. Hurricane Katrina killed 1,850 and the recent cyclone in Burma claimed about 150,000 lives.

'Disaster Movie'

Natural disasters not provoked by mankind can also take large tolls. A tsunami in December 2004 left more than 229,000 victims dead or missing from southeast Asia to eastern Africa.

The researchers cautioned against trying to quantify the number of people who may die from global warming. Climate change will amplify an array of problems such as war, famine and disease that already exist in the world, rather than being one- time events, the researchers said.

So while an estimated 250 million people in Africa may face water shortages in 2020, rising sea levels amid global warming threaten 13 of the largest 20 cities that are on the coast.

"This is not a disaster movie with a happy ending," Costello said. "This is something that is happening and we need to do something about it now. To try and put spurious body bag figures on this is going to be very, very difficult."

To contact the reporter on this story: Michelle Fay Cortez in London at mcortez@bloomberg.netAlex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net

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