Under next director CDC must participate in climate science program with health impacts research


The Centers for Disease Control should be directed to engage actively in the multiagency Climate Change Science Program, we told the Washington Independent.  CDC should be directed and supported to develop a research, assessment, and public communication agenda focused on mortality risks from heat waves, effects of climate change on the transmission of water-borne, food-borne, insect-borne, and rodent-borne diseases, health effects of climate change impacts on air quality, and other potential human health consequences of global climatic disruption.

Post by Rick Piltz

See our earlier posts:
December 1: What will the Obama transition do about Centers for Disease Control director Julie Gerberding?
July 17: EPA releases report identifying harmful effects of climate change on human health
October 24, 2007: The censored testimony of CDC Director Julie Gerberding

The Washington Independent online national news site reported on December 19 (“Scientists Heartened by Potential Appointees”) on prospective appointees for several science-related agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The Washington Post reported last month that Obama is unlikely to keep Julie Gerberding, the embattled CDC chief. 

On July 17 the Environmental Protection Agency released a Climate Change Science Program synthesis report titled Analyses of the Effects of Global Change on Human Health and Welfare and Human Systems. This was the first substantial assessment sponsored by the program since the health sector component of the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts in 2000.  The lead authors of this report included scientists from EPA and the Dept. of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab, but none from the CDC.  Nor was anyone from CDC listed among the multiple authors of the main chapter on health impacts, nor among the team of federal agency reviewers of the report.  There was one CDC official on the federal advisory committee for the report.  Two CDC contributors were listed among the 11 authors for one of the chapters where, deep in the report, in section 4.3.3, there were six pages of discussion of health impacts issues—including issues that had been censored by the White House out of the written testimony submitted by CDC director Julie Gerberding in October 2007 to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.  Why was there not more significant CDC participation in preparing this report?

As research and assessment of the impacts of climate change become increasingly central to the priorities we need the Climate Change Science Program to be pursuing:

o a principal-level CDC representative should be included on the CCSP interagency committee;
o a focused CDC climate change health effects research budget should be included in the CCSP budget crosscut;
o this research agenda should be incorporated into the CCSP’s strategic plan for research; and
o CDC climate change research should be coordinated with that of other agencies with related concerns.
Right now, this is not happening. This should be corrected under new White House, CCSP, and CDC leadership.

There is some climate-related public health research underway at CDC, although information about the level of funding for this work is not readily available.  Our Changing Planet: The U.S. Climate Change Science Program for Fiscal Year 2009, the program’s current annual report to Congress, has the following about the CDC on p. 195, in a section on “related research” that is not included in the CCSP budget (p. 231): 

CDC conducts public health research on a wide variety of topics that are associated with climate change, ranging from vector-borne diseases to human health effects of heat waves. CDC has established a long-term national surveillance system to monitor enzootic transmission activity and patterns across the entire country. For West Nile virus (WNV), the agency is conducting research on the potential human health burdens and transmission characteristics of the disease in Guatemala to study the ecology of WNV and other arboviruses causing encephalitis. The results of the ecology studies may lead to a better understanding of how climate change may influence transmission dynamics. CDC is conducting interrelated investigations of the complex ecology of WNV to better understand its distribution in the United States. Scientists from CDC are working with colleagues from around the world to analyze the key climatic variables and other ecological factors that impact the transmission and distribution of other zoonotic diseases including Chikungunya viral fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley Fever, and plague. Researchers are developing mathematical models that relate changing weather conditions, among other factors, to the risk of infectious diseases in humans, including those caused by hantavirus, lyssaviruses, and filoviruses.

CDC is also developing models to predict mortality risks from the most direct effects of climate change—heat waves. Collaborations with university colleagues on four current projects use remote-sensing data to determine urban neighborhoods and populations most at-risk for deaths during an extreme heat event. Research is also focusing on the knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs of the public on health issues related to climate change to effectively craft health education messages.

This summary gives some indication of elements of a research agenda that should be expanded and incorporated into the overall CCSP, with appropriate CDC leadership and active participation in the development of the program’s future research plan and development of decision-relevant scientifically based climate change impacts assessments. 

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