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UN in Belarus > News > around the world > 2005
Infectious diseases capitalizing on environmental decline,UNEP finds in latest Global Environment Yearbook
Scientists are linking a rise in new and previously suppressed infectious diseases with the dramatic environmental changes now sweeping the planet.
Loss of forests, road and dam building, the spread of cities, the clearing of natural habitats for agriculture, mining and the pollution of coastal waters are promoting conditions under which new and old pathogens can thrive.
Experts cite the case of the highly pathogenic Nipah virus which until recently was found normally in Asian fruit bats.
Its emergence in the late 1990s as an often-fatal disease in humans is being linked with a combination of forest fires in Sumatra and the clearance of natural forests in Malaysia for palm plantations.
Bats, searching for fruit, were forced into closer contact to domestic pigs giving the virus its chance to spread to humans via people handling swine.
Climate change may aggravate the threats of infectious diseases in three ways, experts suggest: firstly, by increasing the temperatures under which many diseases and their carriers flourish, and secondly by further stressing and altering habitats.
For example, the geographic range and seasonality of two of the world's most serious mosquito-borne infections, malaria and dengue fever, are very sensitive to changes in climate. Also, Neissseria meningitidis, a common cause of meningitis, can be spread many miles in the dusty conditions that occur following prolonged drought in the Sahel.
Thirdly, climate change may increase the number of environmental refugees who are forced to migrate to other communities, even countries.
This, in turn, will also favour the spread of diseases from one location to another where the population may be more susceptible.
These are among the findings from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its latest “Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2004/2005” under the section “Emerging Challenges-New Findings”.
The report on the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases is based on new research by some of the leading experts in the field.
These include Tony McMichael of the Australian National University, Bernard Goldstein of the University of Pittsburgh, and Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: “It promises to be a momentous year for the United Nations as a whole and UNEP in particular. In September, nations will gather in New York for a meeting of the General Assembly to evaluate how far we have gone in achieving the Millennium Development Goals.”
“A Task Force, appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan, has concluded that the environment is the cornerstone upon which the Goals are likely to stand or fall. The report on the rise of infections underlines this fact. MDG 6 calls on the global community to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases”, he said.
Mr. Toepfer added: “If environmental degradation is not checked then, it is clear from these new findings that this will be harder and tougher to achieve. There are implications for many of the other Goals, from poverty eradication to the delivery of universal primary education for all. People who are sick are less able to work and children who are ill find it harder to attend and concentrate at school.”
The issue of environmental degradation and a rise of many new and old infectious diseases is a complex, sometimes subtle, one that is causing increasing concern among scientists and disease specialists.
Overall, it seems intact habitats and landscapes tend to keep infectious agents in check, whereas damaged, altered and degraded ones shift the natural balance thereby triggering the spread to people of new and existing diseases.
Many leading experts are now convinced that ecological disruption, dramatic environmental change, and poor handling of human and animal wastes are playing an important part.
Other phenomena also favour the spread of infectious diseases, including international travel, technological change and the globalization of trade in agricultural and other products.
In a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Prof. McMichael argues that the emergence of many infectious diseases 5,000 to 10,000 years ago was a result of humans coming into increasing contact with animals as people established settlements.
The main cause of long-distance spread of infectious diseases, from around 500 years ago, was through war and conquest during the period of European exploration and imperialism in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Today, the changing pattern of infectious diseases is as much due to environmental change as to trade, travel, migration and social conditions, according to Prof. McMichael.
The “Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2004/2005” can be found at http://www.unep.org/gc/gc23/other_publications.asp .
Other issues in the “Year Book” include the impact of climate change on ocean circulation; the changing face of the Earth as seen from space, including the spread of greenhouses in Spain; state of the environment reports from the regions and a look back at significant environmental developments in 2004.
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