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US ‘woefully’ underfunding climate-change health research

Big MosquitoThe US should be spending roughly $200 million on research into climate change’s impact on public health, but actually spends just $3 million — or 1.5 per cent of the recommended investment — in that area, according to a group of US researchers and environmental organisations.

The analysis, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, concludes was inspired by a Congress-ordered study that assesses the importance of global climate change on health. During their research and in preparing testimony for Congressional hearings on the topic, the authors said they realised the US is woefully underfunding climate change health-related research.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate a number of current public health problems in the United States and elsewhere, including heat-related deaths, diarrheal diseases and diseases associated with exposure to allergens and ozone. In addition, ageing populations are more vulnerable to thermal extremes, as are certain demographic and geographic areas, the authors of the new analysis said.

“Even disease distributions are likely to change,” said Mark Wilson, a coauthor and professor of epidemiology. “Certain areas of the world could become more favourable for transmission of various infectious diseases that are associated with water, insect vectors or non-human animal reservoirs. The challenge is to identify the critical research questions that will help inform improvements to the public health infrastructure and prepare for changing environments.”

The type of research needed to solve some of the health problems arising as the planet warms involves working with affected communities and developing concrete solutions, which include addresses the root causes of climate change by reducing fossil fuel combustion, among other measures, said Marie S. O’Neill, another co-author.

“Climate change is happening,” O’Neill said. “It’s a current problem and we need to address it as a public health priority.”

However, most research described in official estimates of US spending on climate and health is focused on more specific diseases — for instance, sun damage and skin cancer — and doesn’t address larger issues posed by climate change.

In the US, one can look to the Hurricane Katrina disaster to see the broad health implications of the type of extreme weather that is becoming more frequent with climate change. The health consequences of flooding, including mould and fungal contamination, and the mental health consequences to displaced people are just two, the authors said.

The authors conclude that federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must establish large intra- and extra-mural programmes with funding of more than $200 million annually to adequately address the problem. The authors recommend that a standing committee within the National Academies of Sciences oversee the programmes and prioritise spending.

In addition to O’Neill, Wilson and Kristie Ebi — all from the University of Michigan — authors included John Balbus of the Environmental Defense Fund, Patrick Kinney of Columbia University, Erin Lipp of the University of Georgia and David Mills of Stratus Consulting Inc.

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