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Local Health Officials Recognize Threat of Global Warming

But survey finds many aren't prepared to tackle the problem in coming decades

THURSDAY, April 24 (HealthDay News) -- While most public health department officials in the United States take the health threat of global warming seriously, the majority say they aren't prepared to confront the problem, a new survey shows.

Sixty percent of local health department directors said they believed that consequences of global warming -- in the form of heat waves, food and water contamination, increased mosquito-borne illness, and poor air quality -- would ultimately give rise to one or more serious health problems in their locality over the next 20 years.

However, 82 percent said they lacked the know-how to plan for such problems, while 77 percent said they needed more resources to improve their ability to do so.

The survey was co-sponsored by the National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO), the Environmental Defense Fund, and George Mason University in Virginia, and the results were included in a broader report titled Are We Ready? Preparing for the Public Health Challenges of Climate Change. The full report was released Thursday, during a teleconference held by all three organizations.

"While most health directors have programs in existence to protect the public, they still felt they had a long way to go to meet the challenge of climate change," NACCHO spokesman Dr. A. Dennis McBride said during the teleconference. McBride is the director of health for the city of Milford, Conn.

He was joined at the conference by report lead author Dr. John Balbus, the Environmental Defense Fund's director of environmental health programs, and Ed Maibach, professor and director of George Mason's Center of Excellence in Climate Change Communication Research.

All three focused on the need for local health departments to prepare for climate-associated health perils, such as extreme heat, extreme weather (such as hurricanes, floods and droughts), air pollution, and the spread of water, food, and animal-borne infectious disease.

To gauge local preparedness, researchers tapped into the perspectives, programs and resources of public health directors working in 133 health departments in 39 states.

Among the findings: 70 percent of health department directors said they believed climate change had already occurred in their region, and 78 percent thought they would experience more change over the next two decades.

Yet while half of the directors suggested that climate change is, therefore, an "important priority," less than 20 percent said that the issue is currently among their jurisdiction's "top 10" priorities.

Many directors indicated that their lack of readiness stems from increasing demands and strains being placed on limited resources, just as federal and state assistance for public health programs is drying up.

And just 26 percent and 34 percent said that either their state or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, respectively, had the expertise in place to help their offices design response plans to climate-driven health crises.

Teleconference speakers said they hoped the survey would draw greater attention to the public health need to prepare for the serious risks posed by climate change.

"There should be a sense of urgency around these issues," McBride said.

To that end, the survey sponsors called for the federal government to fund more climate research, strengthen climate surveillance networks, help train more public health professionals in the skills needed to combat climate-associated health issues, and direct more resources toward the development of local rapid response plans in the face of extreme weather.

"Public health departments really do provide the safety net for this country," said Balbus. "They take care of the most vulnerable population and provide medical care for them. And this service is very relevant to the issue of climate change -- in terms of warning about heat waves, preparedness for floods, monitoring and surveillance of vector-borne disease, and food and water safety."

"And in the coming years we're going to see important changes in either the severity of these problems, or where they're happening," he added. "And these changes need to be planned for, or else we could see public health caught back on its heels."

Patrick Libbey, NACCHO's executive director, described the report as a wake-up call.

"We tend to think of problems as large-scale and episodic in timing," he said. "But this is a problem that is developing slowly. It doesn't hit you like a tornado hits you. So perhaps people have not as readily converted the ecological issues of climate changes to what the health implications are. But it is going to affect our health. It's already affecting our health. And this survey shows we have to be better prepared."

More information

To review the full climate change report, visit the Environmental Defense Fund.

SOURCES: Patrick Libbey, executive director, National Association of County and City Health Officials, Washington, D.C.; John Balbus, M.D., director, environmental health programs, Environmental Defense Fund, Washington D.C.; April 24, 2008, report, Are We Ready? Preparing for the Public Health Challenges of Climate Change

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