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Spring 2001 Vol. 1 No. 1

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photo courtesy NOAA Can Climate Change Make Us Sick?

Throughout history, people have pondered the connection between a change in the weather and a case of the sniffles. Hippocrates taught that specific ailments were tied to changes of season or temperature. Even the words and phrases used today to describe sickness -- "catch a cold," for example, or "under the weather" -- reflect some sort of cause and effect.

And now, with growing concerns that climate variations, such as El Niño, and global warming could trigger outbreaks of disease, a National Research Council committee has taken an in-depth look at the issue.

It found that while many studies show a correlation between climate variations and a higher incidence of disease, such studies generally do not take into account all the factors that play a role in disease transmission -- such as sanitation and public health services, population density, and travel patterns -- and therefore may not be reliable indicators of whether future climate change will cause illnesses to spread.

Likewise, computer models that have been created to simulate the connection between climate change and infectious diseases are useful tools for testing hypotheses, but at present, should not be used to make predictions.

"While there's the potential for predicting disease outbreaks based on changes in the weather, the science in this field is just not there yet," said committee chair Donald Burke, professor of international health and epidemiology, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore.

Burke added that public health measures and new vaccines and drugs can limit the geographic range of infectious diseases, regardless of climate. For example, malaria -- a mosquito-borne parasite associated with warm climates -- was once rampant in some parts of the United States, but officials were able to take steps to eliminate it, such as draining swamps where mosquitoes bred.

Early alarms that tip off authorities to a public health threat stemming from climate changes may be possible someday as our understanding of climate-disease relationships improves and if disease surveillance effort are strengthened considerably, the report suggests. Advances in remote sensing of environmental changes and gene-sequencing techniques should aid such efforts.   -- Bill Kearney

Under the Weather: Exploring the Linkages Among Climate, Ecosystems, and Infectious Disease. Committee on Climate, Ecosystems, Infectious Disease, and Human Health, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2001, approx. 160 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07278-6; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $37.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Donald Burke, professor of international health and epidemiology, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore. The study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Science Foundation, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Global Change Research Program, and the Electric Power Research Institute.

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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences