October 26, 2009 / 3:07 PM / 8 years ago

U.S. seen needing more health preparedness for climate change

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Climate change will mean new health problems for the United States, but public health officials play only a limited role in decisions about how to cope with the changing environment, a report said on Monday.

A study by the Washington-based health advocacy group Trust for America’s Health predicted that warming temperatures will mean more infectious diseases while changes in rainfall are likely to bring new disease and safety challenges whether from floods, storms, droughts or wildfires.

Changes in crop-growing conditions and yields could even threaten rural communities with food insecurity.

But only five U.S. states -- California, Maryland, New Hampshire, Virginia and Washington -- have plans for dealing with the health implications of climate change, while another 28 states have climate change plans without public health elements and 17 states have no climate plans at all, the report said.

It also found that public health officials are not playing a central role in federal climate policy and action, including the U.S. government’s research agenda on climate change.

“As countries around the world work to address climate change, federal, state and local governments around the United States need to ramp up activities to protect people from the health harms it poses,” said Jeff Levi, the group’s executive director.

“States are already overwhelmed by existing public health responsibilities, so we face a serious challenge as we see these new climate change related problems on the horizon.”

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change cites research suggesting that temperatures could rise by as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century without a reduction in carbon emissions.

The Trust for America’s Health report, which coincides with a debate in Congress over whether to limit or cap greenhouse emissions starting in 2012, provided a series of recommendations for federal, state and local government.

It called on the White House to ensure that high-level working groups on climate change consider the health implications.

The report also urged Congress to pay for the study of state and local health department needs, new research on the health effects of climate change and integrated biosurveillance systems.

The 60-page document also called for scholarship initiatives to ensure that the public health workforce has skills necessary to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

While urging state and local health departments to focus on climate change issues, the report said the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should oversee new efforts to study and record climate change’s health effects.

But climate change issues may face declining public interest in the United States. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 35 percent of Americans currently see global warming as a very serious problem, down from 44 percent in April 2008.

Reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan, editing by Jackie Frank

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