September 22, 2008

Roundup: Scientists Urged to Jointly Tackle Africa’s Health Issues

Roundup: Scientists urged to jointly tackle Africa's health issues

By Daniel Ooko

NAIROBI, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- Climate and health experts are warning that scientists must work together to tackle myriad African problems or risk disastrous consequences to human and animal health in the continent.

Faced with the prospect of more variable and changing climates increasing Africa's already intolerable disease burden, experts warned that scientists must begin to reach out to colleagues in other fields and to the people they want to help if they hope to avert an expected "continental disaster".

According to leading climate, health, and information technology experts, who met in Nairobi, Kenya, this week, climate change will further increase the already high variability of Africa's climate, fostering the emergence, resurgence and spread of infectious diseases.

"A warmer world will generally be a sicker world," said Onesmo ole-MoiYoi, a Tanzanian medical, veterinary and vector expert.

"We scientists need to adopt a new way of working, one that makes African communities bearing the burden of disease part of the solution rather than part of the problem."

The separate fields of human health, animal health, climate, vectors and environment must come together to avert a "continental disaster," according to leading experts who attended the meeting.

Patti Kristjanson of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which hosted the meeting, agreed. "We need to do things differently than we have in the past. The impact of disease will increase if we continue to operate in silos."

"Our only chance at reducing the impact of deadly diseases in Africa is to increase collaboration across the disciplines of environment and health, and in a way that involves local communities. Failure to do so could lead to disastrous consequences," Kristjanson said.

The experts concluded a three-day meeting sponsored by Google. org and organized by researchers from the IGAD Climate Predictions and Applications Centre (ICPAC), the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), ILRI and

The meeting was one of the first on the continent to link climate and health researchers to reduce Africa's infectious disease burden.

The experts cited malaria, Rift Valley fever and bird flu as diseases poised to spread to new areas, along with an increasing threat of diseases such as Chikungunya and the emergence of as yet unknown disease pathogens, unless researchers, disease control workers and local communities share information and communicate faster and more strategically across their professions.

The World Health Organization estimates that changes to the earth's climate are already causing five million more severe illness and more than 150,000 more deaths each year. By 2030, the number of climate-related diseases is likely to more than double.

Rosemary Sang, a researcher from KEMRI, described a case study of an outbreak of Rift Valley fever that claimed the lives of 155 Kenyans in late 2006 and early 2007.

The virus is transmitted from livestock to people either through handling of infected animal material or by the mosquito vectors.

Sang said the outbreak highlights most of the critical challenges researchers and health officials face in connecting data and advanced warnings to realities on the ground.

Kenya's Garissa District, in the remote north-eastern corner of the country, experienced heavy rains and flooding starting in mid- October 2006, resulting in standing pools of water that became breeding sites for the mosquitoes that transmit Rift Valley fever.

The first veterinary interventions did not take place until mid- January 2007, almost three months after the onset of the heavy rains, 2.5 months after mosquito swarms were reported, two months after the first livestock and 1.5 months after the first human cases were recorded, respectively.

"We need to move up our response times to these outbreaks," said Sang. "All of the warning signs of an outbreak were there but we weren't able to connect the dots."

She cites poor telecommunication and roads in the region as major challenges. "Many of these areas lie outside mobile phone networks and far from health or veterinary clinics. As animals and then people began to get sick and die, the word didn't get out fast enough."

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