Washington — Human health ebbs and flows with the seasons, but the current confluence of extreme weather, global climate change and the shifting distribution of disease are driving the need for more active collaboration between climate scientists and public health experts.
Meetings between health and climate experts have been increasing since early 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that Earth’s climate is changing and human activity is affecting that change. (See “Prepare for Health Effects of Climate Change, World Experts Urge.”)
At the latest event, “Changing Climate, Changing Health Patterns: What Will it Take to Predict and Protect,” held in Washington June 18, Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Barbara Hatcher, secretary-general of the World Federation of Public Health Associations; and a panel of experts discussed Earth observations and their application to public health.
An important tool for both disciplines is the Global Earth Observation System of System (GEOSS), Lautenbacher said, an effort that integrates data from the widely distributed Earth-observing networks of surface-based, airborne and space-based monitoring instruments.
The intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) — a voluntary organization of 73 governments and the European Commission and 52 intergovernmental, international and regional organizations — coordinates the GEOSS effort, which began in 2003. (See “Benefits Arise from Global Effort To Link Earth Observation Data.”)
EARTH FROM SPACE
The GEOSS network of data providers, panel moderator Leonard Hirsch said during a June 19 State Department webchat, have come together “to develop standards, methodologies and tools to better use the enormous investment countries and localities have made in collecting observations from around the Earth — everything from satellite-based images and on-the-ground measurements of water flow to biodiversity patterns and health trends.” Hirsch is a senior policy adviser at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington
Today’s capacity to map and model such measurements, Hatcher said, “enables us to delve much more deeply into the links, pathways and causes of public health concerns, from infectious disease to pollution-related illnesses such as asthma and allergies.”
Scientists already use Earth observations to predict disease outbreaks. Since the 1980s, the U.S. Agency for International Development has funded projects that use remotely sensed data to address resource management, land-cover changes, monitoring and early warning systems in countries worldwide.
In 1994, scientist Rita Colwell, while studying environmental influences on cholera, suggested sea-surface temperature and height, and plankton blooms could be remotely sensed and used to forecast outbreaks.
A strong early warning system prevented disease outbreaks in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after an earthquake and tsunami in 2005.
Since 1997, through the U.S. Defense Department’s Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System, NASA scientists have been using satellite observations of vegetation, sea-surface temperatures and more to monitor rainfall conditions in East Africa that are linked with outbreaks of diseases like Rift Valley fever.
Over the next decade or so, GEOSS will improve such predictions, turn data on the transport of air pollution into early warnings for cardiovascular and respiratory patients, use data on weather and stream flow to better manage drinking water, and integrate knowledge of population distribution, chemical transport and advance hurricane and flood forecasts into emergency management decisions.
Along with its GEOSS effort, Lautenbacher said, NOAA is planning to create a National Climate Service.
“Our nation needs not a set of activities distributed throughout NOAA and other agencies,” he added, “but a clearly identified access point to the federal government’s climate resources” so decision makers can make good use of observational assessments and prediction expertise.
ON THE GROUND
Climate scientists have computer models that predict changes in the atmosphere and the effects of those changes, and even the ability of society to respond to the changes over the course of decades or centuries.
“In theory,” said Frank Rijsberman, “those models could be used to predict the impact of climate change on health. In practice, though, on the ground in hot spots such as central Africa or Southeast Asia, most diseases and deaths go undiagnosed. If you like, that’s a technical term for saying we really have no idea what’s going on out there.” Rijsberman is program director for the Predict and Prevent Initiative at Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the company behind the world’s most popular Internet search engine.
Using sophisticated tools at the global level must be balanced in such regions with strengthening public health infrastructure, routine disease surveillance and pathogen identification and reporting. Rijsberman said Google is making grants to support work in these and other areas.
Ecologist Joshua Rosenthal, deputy division director and biodiversity program director at the National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center, said the overarching goal of the long-term Earth observation effort should be to “first strengthen the basic health research, health surveillance and health protection systems around the world, with a particular eye to the most vulnerable populations.”
This includes training research scientists in the United States and internationally in basic research on epidemiology assessment and in communication about diseases, he added. “The backbone of any surveillance network is the ability to diagnose diseases and then communicate them properly to the rest of the world.”
Such enhanced capability then could be integrated with climate predictions, Rosenthal said, especially if “the climate community is able to downscale their models to levels that are relevant to where health systems actually operate — at the national and community levels.”
In the end, he said, “even if our models are imperfect, which is the nature of models, it’s a good idea and it would have a lot of co-benefits for health and human well-being, no matter how right we were in predicting” disease outbreaks. Courtsey : Cheryl Pellerin