December 2, 1997 in Nation/World

Global Warming Kills, Say Harvard Doctors Pair Outlines Effects Of Climate Change On Human Health

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan Boston Globe
 

Talk of the greenhouse effect often leaves non-scientists scratching their heads over arcane debating points, technical terminology and seemingly distant possibilities, such as the melting of polar ice caps.

But two Harvard doctors are trying to change that by making global warming relevant to the common man. Like the campaign started by Boston physicians in the 1960s to demystify nuclear war by documenting the impact it would have on the human body - a movement many say was pivotal in turning public opinion against nuclear weapons - some doctors are spreading the gospel of greenhouse gases as a direct health hazard, not a nebulous numbers game.

Here in Japan for the United Nations convention on climate change that opened Monday, the directors of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School today will outline medical catastrophes - from staggering increases in insect-borne diseases to deaths from heat waves - that they say are linked to warmer temperatures. Hotter weather, in turn, is widely believed to be brought on by carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

“We are in effect conducting a global experiment and all life, human life included, are the experimental subjects,” Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Harvard center, said in an interview Monday.

The irony, he added, is that while the United Nations has strict guidelines requiring consent from humans involved in medical experiments, member countries are still arguing about whether to limit energy use that creates conditions dangerous to people’s health. “No medical school in the world would approve of this kind of an experiment,” he asserted.

Of 30 new diseases that emerged in the last 20 years, many thrive in warmer, wetter weather, Epstein said. Lyme disease, for example, first identified in New England, is linked to warmer, humid conditions that breed more deer ticks.

Similarly, the fourfold increase in malaria in the last five years is associated with heat and humidity that encourage mosquito breeding, make parasites mature faster, and increase mosquito-biting rates, Epstein said. The warmest year this century was 1995, and some climatologists predict 1997 will break that record.

Recent years have also seen a marked increase in dengue fever, with 320,000 reported cases in the Americas. Emerging so-called hemorrhagic diseases, such as ebola, machupo and hanta virus could also be related to climatic conditions, Epstein said.

Dr. Eric Chivian, director of the Harvard center, said hanta, which was first detected in the southwestern United States in 1993, emerged after six years of drought that killed off predators of disease-carrying mice, followed by heavy rains and snows during which the mice population rose tenfold.

“We don’t know how many other infectious agents are being held in check by ecological balance,” he said. “In this case, climate altered that balance.”

In the first open letter on the medical effects of climate change signed by more than 400 doctors and published Monday in The New York Times, Chivian and Epstein cite a World Health Organization report that outlines hazards believed to be brought on by greenhouse gases, including deaths from air pollution and heat waves; injuries from extreme weather; outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and cholera; and reduced access to safe drinking water because of droughts and flooding.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, the group founded in Boston in the 1960s to campaign against nuclear war, sent a letter to President Clinton last summer signed by 1,100 doctors, including eight Nobel laureates in medicine.

Robert K. Musil, the organization’s executive director, said the climate change issue mirrors the antinuclear campaign: “You can’t see greenhouse gases, just as most people never saw an MX missile or the threats from nuclear war. We’re trying to point out things that you can see, feel, and touch.”

“Doctors understand that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” added Alfonso Lopez, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which is critical of the Clinton administration’s perceived weak stance on reducing greenhouse gases through a protocol being hammered out here in Kyoto. The United States is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.

“If a doctor saw all the symptoms of meningitis and didn’t treat the disease, they’d be sued for malpractice,” Lopez said. “Yet the president is basically putting a Band-Aid on a problem that requires a tourniquet.”


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