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WHO: El Nino Will Subject 60 Million to Health Risks

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - This image shows the satellite sea surface temperature departure for the month of October 2015, where orange-red colors are above normal temperatures and are indicative of El Nino.

FILE - This image shows the satellite sea surface temperature departure for the month of October 2015, where orange-red colors are above normal temperatures and are indicative of El Nino.

The El Nino weather phenomenon that emerged toward the end of last year is expected to peak this month and then begin to wind down through March and April, but the World Health Organization warns Friday that its health consequences would most likely worsen as an estimated 60 million people will be subjected to its full effects throughout 2016.

El Nino, defined by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, produces extreme drought and acute water shortages in some parts of the world and heavy rainfall and flooding in others.

People in the Horn of Africa, southern and eastern Africa, the South Pacific, Central America and South Asia are likely to suffer most from these extreme weather conditions. The WHO said seven countries — Tanzania, Kenya, Chad, Somalia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Peru — would be at greatest risk.

Rick Brennan, the WHO's director of emergency risk management and humanitarian response, said an El Nino has "a broad range of potential impacts" on human health — "from malnutrition to infectious diseases to disruptions of health services. And, again, it is the most vulnerable, it is the poorest countries, it is the elderly, it is the children that are the most impacted.”

Brennan said drought associated with El Nino can result in high levels of malnutrition and lead to child deaths. He said acute water shortages can disrupt sanitation and hygiene services, causing infections such as diarrheal disease and scabies.

On the other hand, he said, heavy rains can increase the risk of diseases such as malaria and dengue. He said flooding can kill and injure people as well as damage vital infrastructure.

Brennan said countries can take a number of steps to prepare for an El Nino and limit its health consequences. These include disease control measures, such as vaccinating malnourished children against measles.

He said countries should increase hygiene services to try to control infectious diseases and prevent the spread of malaria, dengue and others. He said surveillance systems to detect disease outbreaks early should be scaled up so quick action can be taken to contain them.

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