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Experts Warn Climate Change Could Cause Health Disaster in Africa


Climatologists, veterinarians, and medical researchers meeting in Nairobi, Kenya have agreed to work together to combat what they describe as a "continental health disaster" in the making as a result of climate change. They say such collaboration also requires the involvement of local communities, who can report outbreaks of diseases before they become epidemics. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from Nairobi.

Event organizers say the three-day meeting was called in response to fears that climate change, especially global warming, could dramatically accelerate the emergence, resurgence and the spread of infectious diseases on the continent.

Warmer climates promote the breeding of mosquitoes, which are vectors for transmitting diseases such as malaria, Rift Valley fever, West Nile fever, and Chikungunya, a virus indigenous to tropical Africa and Asia.

The concern is that climate change could also introduce new pathogens that the continent is not prepared to cope with.

East Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute, which hosted the meeting, says veterinarians are key players in the discussions because it is believed that monitoring the health of livestock could help reduce the impact of deadly diseases in humans. The institute's spokeswoman Patti Kristjanson explains.

"Pastoralists and other people across this continent have been struggling to cope with climate-related issues. And the way they are manifested is often through infectious diseases, both that are killing animals and people. Many infectious diseases start in animals and are transmitted to people such as HIV, the Avian Flu. So, they are key issues that need to be tackled in an integrated way because the animal health people alone cannot come up with all the answers that are needed nor can human health people," she said.

Kristjanson says sharing information and data across professions is expected to help shorten response time to emergencies and may even help predict outbreaks before they happen.

But she says scientists and doctors will not be able to achieve much without the involvement of local communities, who have the responsibility of taking preventive measures and reporting the first signs of trouble.

In some parts of rural Africa, villagers are already using mosquito nets and draining stagnant pools to prevent the insects from breeding. But information-sharing is hampered by poor roads and the lack of access to telephones and the Internet. Many people also live far from health and veterinary clinics.

Kristjanson says those challenges must be addressed immediately to give local people, especially in high-risk areas, a greater role in dealing with climate change. She says specialists are now advocating a non-traditional approach to disease management.

"You know, you report to a vet. The vet goes to the government and it comes from the top down," she said. "The Web and the information getting out there are increasing the possibility that information will come from a community that is struggling with a new disease."

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 150,000 deaths across the globe each year are caused by climate-related diseases. By 2030, it says that number is likely to double.

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