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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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NIEHS Support Brings the "E" to Global Health Conference

By NIEHS GEH Staff

This March, the NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences helped plan and sponsor sessions at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health Annual Conference. The New York City meeting brought together over 1800 professionals and global health researchers from 55 countries, including speakers from NIEHS, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other WHO Collaborating Centres, and featured sessions on the health impacts of environmental degradation and climate change. This year’s theme, Health Disparities: A Time for Action provided a meaningful context to the NIEHS-sponsored sessions, highlighting differences in health impacts vulnerability and challenges to implementing effective solutions for disadvantaged populations.

A session organized by the NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre featured three panels, looking at:

  • Children’s special health needs during natural disasters,
  • The state of the science in predictive modeling for climate-sensitive infectious diseases, and
  • The economic and communications challenges of climate change and global health.

NIEHS Centre Director John Balbus, M.D., helped organize a half-day pre-meeting satellite session along with Madeleine Thomson, Ph.D., from the International Research Institute and Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and Jonathan Patz, M.D., from the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin. Balbus provided the closing session summary, highlighting common themes among the speakers, including the implementation gaps between knowledge of climate-sensitivity and population vulnerability and actual public health measures. Several speakers noted short societal memory leading to failure of planning for climate-related health disasters and made more unfortunate as climate change appears to be increasing the frequency of different types of severe natural disasters.

John Balbus spoke on the final day of the conference about the health impacts of climate change.

John Balbus spoke on the final day of the conference about the health impacts of climate change.
(Photo courtesy of Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH))

On the closing day of the meeting, Balbus moderated and spoke at a plenary session, focusing on current understanding of the health impacts of climate change and natural disasters and highlighting solutions needed to make health systems, communities, and individuals more resilient to weather and climate extremes. After his talk, four speakers expanded on specific themes. Thomson described her institution’s efforts to connect health departments in several African countries with predictions of climate-sensitive disease outbreaks. Wim deVilliers, D.Phil., rector and vice chancellor of Stellenbosch University, South Africa, spoke of his university’s engineering solutions to cope with the exceptionally severe drought the Cape Town area is currently experiencing. James Hospedales, executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), provided insights on managing climate-related public health problems in small island states. To close the session, Kim Knowlton, Ph.D., Assistant Clinical Professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, provided a description of the Global Consortium for Climate and Health Education and roles for the global health academic community to play in developing solutions to address the health crisis posed by climate change.

Keith Martin, M.D., executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health welcomed attendees.

Keith Martin, M.D., executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health welcomed attendees.
(Photo courtesy of Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH))

In between these sessions, the conference featured outstanding presentations and sessions on global environmental health, demonstrating the organization’s recognition that environmental factors play an enormous role in health disparities. “The health of people and the planet are inseparable,” said Keith Martin, M.D., executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH). “Global health is an interdisciplinary mechanism that enables us to address both of these vital needs. The NIEHS and its WHO Collaborating Centre are providing essential research, monitoring and scientific expertise on how environmental threats, including climate change, affect people’s lives. CUGH is extremely grateful to NIEHS for collaborating with us in our common quest to improve the well-being of people and the environment everywhere.”

In addition to an inspirational opening keynote by Stephen Lewis, former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS, in which he expressed his personal concern for the health and society-disrupting impacts of climate change, the meeting featured a session devoted to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, chaired by NIEHS Grantee Phil Landrigan, M.D. The National Institutes of Health have long been engaged with the CUGH annual meeting, and the Fogarty International Center, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease were prominent sponsors of this year’s event. This was the second year that NIEHS participated directly, having previously sponsored a plenary panel in 2013.

“The CUGH annual meeting provides a unique opportunity to encourage researchers and service providers in global health to consider how the environment impacts their work,” said Trisha Castranio, NIEHS Global Environmental Health program analyst. “By bringing the most current findings to the discussion, the NIEHS clarifies the connection between environmental and global health for the people who are most able to translate that knowledge and make lives better.”