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New Efforts Aim to Align Disaster and Climate Adaptation Research Strategies to Improve Global Health

Flow chart of conceptual framework
Figure shows the conceptual framework, with direct and indirect health pathways of climate change and climate-sensitive disasters. (Photo courtesy of Banwell et al., 2018, Int J Environ Res Public Health)
Evacuees in Thailand walk through a flooded street after severe flooding, little girl holds stuffed animals
Evacuees in Thailand walk through a flooded street after severe flooding. (Photo courtesy of VOA News)

By Kenda Freeman

Recognizing the need for a holistic approach to reduce climate and disaster-related health risks, NIEHS and other NIH partners are working to expand global collaborations and advance initiatives that align disaster and climate adaptation research strategies.

To this end, a new conceptual framework provides a model for NIEHS and partners to pursue these efforts, with the goal of improving human health on a global scale.

Addressing Complex, Overlapping Health Risks

Some disasters are triggered by extreme weather events, such as severe storms or high temperatures that lead to wildfires. Other extreme weather events, like prolonged droughts, unfold more slowly. With increasing trends in extreme weather being observed, meteorologists and climatologists are starting to quantify the contribution of climate change to the occurrence of natural disasters. Scientists are also exploring how these factors interact and how they may impact human health.

A Call for Evidence-Based Research to Optimize Disaster Risk Reduction

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (Sendai Framework) is a voluntary, nonbinding agreement that was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. It includes seven global targets and prioritizes understanding disaster risk, enhancing preparedness, and implementing strategies to ensure resiliency.

Unlike its predecessor, the Hyogo Framework for Action, the Sendai Framework highlights concerns on human health that are common to disaster risk reduction and climate change. It promotes the need for more scientific research focused on disaster causes, effects, and risk patterns.

To this end, NIEHS is making considerable progress on strengthening the evidence base of disaster research through the institute’s Time-Sensitive Research Grants program as well as the NIH DR2 program. The success of these programs has been evident, especially in conducting research after Hurricane Harvey in Texas. This data will inform future steps needed to ensure disaster preparedness and resiliency for communities within the U.S. and abroad.

In a recent article, Nicola Banwell and colleagues describe a conceptual framework that addresses the complex and overlapping health risks associated with changing climate patterns and disasters. Banwell is a doctoral student studying in the Centre for Environment and Population Health at Griffith University. She is mentored by Brendan Mackey, Ph.D., Shannon Rutherford, Ph.D., and Cordia Chu, Ph.D.

“Groups working on disaster risk reduction or climate adaptation are often divided – this framework is intended to create a common language between these groups, and to provide a basis for them to work together and strengthen initiatives,” said Banwell. “Overall, this could help countries maximize resources and increase the efficiency of addressing complex health risks.”

Promoting Connections Between Disaster Resilience and Climate Adaptation Strategies

Building upon principles outlined in her conceptual framework and a recent literature review, Banwell is promoting the need for improved coherence between disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation programs in international settings. As part of her doctoral research project, Banwell is helping stakeholders in the Philippines identify possible connections between local disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation programs to mitigate climate-sensitive hazards and the resulting health risks.

In the context of her conceptual framework, leptospirosis is an infectious disease that occurs through an indirect health impact pathway associated with flooding during the monsoon season in the Philippines. Changing climate patterns drive the risk of severe flooding, a climate-sensitive hazard, and flooding then affects both human and ecosystem-mediated factors, leading to greater risk of a leptospirosis outbreak.

“Biological hazards, such as leptospirosis, present an emerging area of overlap for disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation programs in the Philippines,” said Banwell. “By using a common framework, we can determine ways to link approaches between these programs to reduce biological risks, as well as other simultaneous health impacts associated with climate change and disasters.”

Expanding Global Partnerships and Resources to Advance Disaster and Climate Research

Search Results for Climate Change
Figure shows a snapshot of search results on the publicly-accessible Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal. Given the convergence of climate and disaster research, the portal now includes more disaster-specific studies, including topics like hurricanes and wildfires.

Banwell’s work could potentially inform disaster and climate research worldwide, which is coming to the forefront of many international conversations. These conversations have spurred interest in international partnerships, particularly those involving the NIEHS-World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences (WHOCC) and the NIH Disaster Research Response (DR2) Program.

The WHOCC provides a focal point for NIEHS to fulfill its strategic goals in global environmental health, one of which is focused on climate change and human health. John Balbus, M.D., director of the Collaborating Centre, says activities with, for example, the Understanding Climate Health Associations in India (UCHAI)initiative, have touched on the intersection of disaster and climate research. The WHOCC is also working to expand the Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal, an NIEHS knowledge management tool and resource, by incorporating more disaster-specific studies.

The DR2 program, which is led by NIEHS in collaboration with the National Library of Medicine, is improving the capacity of researchers to respond to disasters and emergencies in a timely fashion and empowering them to address research challenges and questions associated with disasters and emerging threats. The program offers training exercises, data collection tools, research protocols, and other helpful resources for the research community through the DR2 website. Additionally, the DR2 program strives to foster integration of the environmental health research community with public health and emergency management professionals to improve disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., serves as the institute’s lead for DR2. “By expanding our global partnerships, we can share expertise, make tools and resources more accessible, and become more responsive to various disaster situations,” said Miller.

NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., Miller, and other institute representatives are taking initiative to become more involved in international activities related to disaster research. For example, in August 2017, Birnbaum and Chiho Watanabe, Ph.D., president of Japan’s National Institute of Environmental Studies, signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on disaster research.

Miller is actively participating in this as well as other initiatives, including ongoing efforts by Health Canada to develop a Canadian DR2 program. He also serves on the planning committee for a new collaborative project led by the NIH Fogarty International Center on advancing health research in humanitarian crises. As part of this project, Miller is working with Amit Mistry, Ph.D., project lead and senior scientist in the Fogarty Center for Global Health Studies, and other partners to catalyze timely, actionable research in the context of humanitarian crises in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Given their limited public health infrastructure, LMICs often face disproportionate burdens from humanitarian crises, including armed conflict and climate-sensitive disasters, leaving them vulnerable to disrupted access to security, health care, food, water, and other necessities. “We have noticed an increase in humanitarian crises and issues around the world, but research on health risks in these settings is limited,” said Mistry. “More research efforts are needed and affected communities need to be engaged in this research to improve the implementation of health interventions to prevent adverse outcomes.”

Mistry said collaboration with the DR2 program will help make tools available to those interested in this research and provide a means of bridging partnerships with researchers, humanitarian organizations, and policymakers.

Moving forward, the NIEHS WHOCC and the DR2 program will continue efforts to promote the strengthening of disaster research on an international spectrum, with a focus on vulnerable communities. The broad networks that are built in coming years will enable NIEHS and NIH partners to better coordinate efforts and address complex health risks in a timely fashion.