To Save Lives, Give Global Warming the Same Priority As Biological Weapons, Says WWFBuenos Aires, 5 November 1998 - Global warming is creating the conditions for an explosive spread in infectious diseases that are already claiming new victims in industrialised countries, according to a scientific report (1) from WWF, the world's largest conservation organisation. A combination of rapid warming of the globe and extreme weather events is intensifying disease outbreaks and making previously-unaffected regions susceptible. Children and the elderly are among the prime victims.
Jennifer Morgan, Climate Policy Officer of WWF U.S. commented: Global warming has a frightening potential for unleashing devastation and increasing human misery on every continent. Reducing the carbon pollution that causes global warming deserves the same kind of priority that governments are devoting to preventing proliferation of chemical and biological weapons.
The report, written by Dr Paul Epstein, an Associate Director at Harvard Medical School (2), in the United States, is a grave warning to nations which are reluctant to reduce their emissions of heat-trapping global warming gases like carbon dioxide. Global warming is disrupting the balance of global climate and the world's weather patterns. It is primarily being driven by carbon pollution building up in the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and gas for energy.
Dengue fever, malaria and cholera head the list of diseases of main concern. Dr Epstein cites examples of how outbreaks have already affected trade, tourism and economic security. The 1991 cholera epidemic cost Peru over $1 billion in lost seafood exports and tourism. International airline and hotel businesses lost over $2 billion because of the 1994 Indian plague. The dengue threat to the Caribbean could threaten its $12 billion tourist industry.
Diseases like dengue and malaria are affecting new populations as warmer conditions allow mosquitoes to survive over a wider area and at higher altitudes. Dengue fever - a flu-like illness which can be fatal and for which there is no vaccine - blanketed Latin America in 1995. It has been recorded in northern Argentina and Australia and is now occurring regularly in Asia.
Malaria currently kills up to two million people each year and over 2 billion people are considered at risk of contracting the disease. Hot, humid periods in the 1990s have led to malaria cases being recorded in United States in California, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Michigan and Virginia, as well as in Toronto, Canada. Analyses show malaria outbreaks outside tropical regions becoming more common in the future.
Scientists and governments agree that the world has warmed by up to 0.6 degree Celsius (1.1 degree Fahrenheit) this century. The seven warmest years since scientists began keeping records almost 150 years ago have all occurred in the past decade with 1997 being the warmest. Every month from January to August in 1998 broke the previous record for that month. If governments continue to allow anything like business-as-usual levels of global warming emissions, the build-up in the atmosphere is predicted to cause a further warming of 1 to 3.5 degree C (1.8 to 6.3 degree F) over the next century.
Dr Paul Epstein, said: Warmer winters and nights are altering the distribution of mosquito-borne diseases, while extreme weather events such as floods and droughts are spawning large clusters of infectious disease outbreaks. The costs of business-as-usual are mounting.
The problem will be worsened by global warming affecting the population balance of animal predators such as owls, snakes, birds and bats which keep insects and rodents in check.
On top of the effects of the warming trend come more frequent and extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms which directly cause death and injury and open the door to other serious health problems.
During 1995 and the El Niqo of 1997/98, which some scientists link to global warming, heat waves caused thousands of additional deaths in India and hundreds in central Europe and the United States. At the same time, extreme droughts turned forests in Asia, the Mediterranean region, Mexico, Central America, Florida and California into tinderboxes. Enormous quantities of air pollution from burning forests led to a dramatic rise in the number of cases of eye irritation, respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease - examples of the unexpected public health surprises which become more likely in a warming world.
Meanwhile, floods which affected Africa in late 1997 led to upsurges of cholera, malaria and Rift Valley fever. Cholera also affected parts of Latin America following flooding along the Pacific Coast and southern Brazil.
In developing countries, health conditions depend to a great extent on the success of the harvest. Both floods, which encourage the growth of fungi, and droughts, which promote whiteflies, locusts and rodents, have an impact on agricultural production. Half of the world's agricultural production worth $250 billion is currently lost to pests and weeds and this figure could increase with warmer and more unpredictable weather.
Next week, Environment Ministers from around 170 countries travel to Buenos Aires for the closing days of United Nations talks on climate change.
Jennifer Morgan of WWF demanded, Western industrialised nations must take stronger steps against global warming and ensure they make a permanent downturn in their emissions by the start of next century.
For more information and for interviews, contact:
English-speaking press: Andrew Kerr, tel: +54 1 969 7117
U.S. press: Michael Ross, tel: +54 1 427 5510
German-speaking press: Ulrike Hellmessen, tel: +54 1 427 5509
Spanish-speaking press: Mariana Lomi, tel: +54 1 427 5508
Notes to editors:
(1) Climate Change and Human Health. Dr Paul Epstein. WWF International. November 1998. A 3000-word summary of the report is entitled Global warming: health and disease. Translations are available in Spanish and German.
(2) Paul R. Epstein, M.D.,M.P.H. is Associate Director, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
(3) For press in Buenos Aires: WWF has 4 minutes of footage of cholera and dengue fever victims and the Aedes aegypti mosquito which causes dengue. Available as broadcast-quality PAL and NTSC.