During the decades since mass industrialization and pollution became problem points for people in the United States, environmental advocates forewarned that global warming would become an insurmountable problem in the years to come.
It wasn’t until Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the former vice president-turned green crusader’s cautionary slide show on the harmful effects of greenhouse gases to the planet, was released three years ago that “global warming” became a term permanently imprinted onto the minds and agendas of Americans. Global warming wasn’t a far-off problem; it’s happening now, Gore maintained.
A comparable consciousness of infectious diseases has taken hold: first avian flu, then swine flu, the latter having gripped some Ventura County residents in fear.
The global warming/disease link wasn’t fully realized until a national study detailing a “deadly dozen” was released last year, outlining infectious illnesses that could worsen through global warming’s effects.
The idea, according to the report, is that as climates across the earth change permanently, ecosystems are altered; and insects and humans, the carriers of disease, change their locations to adapt, thus spreading disease in the process.
Dr. Henry Oster, Ventura County’s leading expert on infectious diseases, knows this well and will break down these topics in an in-depth, two-hour seminar this week. Oster will help inform people about global warming, how disease is spread because of it, and how Venturans can defend themselves against contagious diseases like malaria, Cryptococcus and H1N1.
Dr. Oster sat down to talk with the Reporter about his seminar at Community Memorial Hospital.
VC Reporter: Tell us a little about your specialization in the field of infectious diseases.
Oster: I’ve been in California since 1977 and before that I did my training (in) south Florida. South Florida is on the edge of risk for some of the tropical diseases we’ll talk about on Tuesday. I have the Florida Health Department to thank for some of the information that I’ll provide.
There’s been a lot of awareness of the overall effects of global warming, and a greater consciousness of illness and disease in Ventura County, especially about the swine flu. You’re examining parallels between the two.
Yes, I think there is an overlap because global climate change will affect the migration of migratory birds. They are, of course, one of the vectors for transmission of the influenza virus. So there is an indirect association. The fact that certain areas of the world are warmer than others is really the reason for some of the changes in tropical disease transmission and prevalence.
What are some of the most common infectious diseases we face today, and which ones are worsened most by a changing climate?
Various experts have different lists. One of the more attention-getting details I’ve noticed is the “deadly dozen” of contagious diseases. We’ll talk about (at the seminar) 12 or so illnesses I think everyone can agree on are a problem. The most prevalent ones include malaria — which has been known to cause up to a million deaths worldwide each year — and some diseases imported into the United States by travelers.
We don’t hear too much about malaria and some other infectious disease in Ventura County; what are the chances those illnesses and others become more evident here with climatic change?
Other illnesses such as dengue fever and yellow fever are on the list; and the mosquito vectors for that, as well as for malaria, do exist in North America. The range of those insect vectors is actually increasing with global warming. And so, when by chance a person in an acute phase of illness was to be bitten by a mosquito, for example, that mosquito could transmit the disease to someone else. So there are theoretical concerns. In fact, in Northern California, periodically, small numbers of indigenous malaria (have) been spread among workers in the Delta region, parts of the Bay Area.
Many skeptics claim that global warming in and of itself is a myth.
There was a Gallup poll last year that actually indicated that up to a third of Americans are seriously concerned about global warming. I realize that there is diametric opposition. I’m of course not an expert on climate change, but I will have to make some introductory remarks and provide some remarks and provide some information that the experts tell me about.
What are some preventive measures people can take, both environmentally and medically, to remain healthy, despite the spread of disease from global warming?
That’s a good question; the preventive measures really pertain to the specific disease. We will talk, for example, (about) how travelers can protect themselves from exposure to malaria. There are similar rules that apply to other vector-borne diseases such as yellow fever and other viral diseases that are in the tropics.
Is there anything else our readers might expect from your seminar?
One of the tributes I’m going to give in the presentation is to a World Health Organization (WHO) leader, Dr. Jonathan Mann. He’s no longer with us; he died tragically in an airplane accident. He championed the idea that health is a global rights issue. He helped popularize the mantra “Think globally, act locally.” So the audience members will be encouraged to think about what they can do locally as a result of the information that we have about global climate change and infectious disease.
Dr. Oster’s seminar, “On the Rise: The Effects of Global Warming on Infectious Disease,” will be Tuesday, Nov. 10, 6-8 p.m. in the Nichols Auditorium of Community Memorial Hospital, eighth floor, 147 N. Brent St., Ventura. To R.S.V.P., call 652-5436 or visit cmhshealth.org/rsvp.