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Poverty, Resource Depletion, and Climate Change: Today's Challenges for Epidemiological Research

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 12, 2012

Epidemiologists may share the fate of dinosaurs unless they begin intensive study on the health impacts of poverty, resource depletion and climate change, an environmental health scholar asserts.

Epidemiology has a heroic past, Colin Butler, a professor of environmental health at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, in Canberra, writes in The Scientist. The legendary Dr. John Snow, considered the father of modern epidemiology, gathered evidence for the transformative recognition that cholera outbreaks in London in the 1850s were caused by contaminated drinking water, not "bad air" or supernatural causes. Twentieth century epidemiologists identified causes of many chronic and infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and lung cancer.

Today, Butler writes, in his article "An Evolving Science for an Evolving Time," public health faces threats from problems that need more intense and better funded study. Nearly one seventh of the world's population go to bed hungry, he says, and 2,000,000 more battle chronic fatigue caused by iron deficiency. He calls poverty, resource depletion, and "its dark shadow, climate change", the "elephants in the room."

"We are running out of oil and depleting other stocks of fossil fuel, the burning of which transfers once-buried carbon to the ocean and air," he writes. "In a few decades, we are likely to run short of phosphate, which is essential for fertilizer. We are thus damaging food security, and, before too long, coastal infrastructures via sea-level rise. Growth in population size and ongoing consumerism will increase the challenges even further. Since prevention is the main thrust of public health, addressing these problems sooner would be better."

Butler was named one of "100 doctors for the planet" by the French Environmental Health Association, was a founding board member of Doctors for Environment Australia, and is co-editor of EcoHealth: the journal of the International Association of Ecology and Health.

Many other authorities also argue for more study on social and environmental health impacts. In an article in the journal Epidemiology, "Why Epidemiologists Cannot Afford to Ignore Poverty," Harvard scholar Nancy Krieger writes that inadequate study of the impact of poverty and health care inequality not only makes suffering invisible but distorts understanding of the etiology and distribution of disease. Donald Spady, a pediatrician at the University or Alberta in Canada who studies child health epidemiology, believes the effects of resource depletion, including energy and water, and climate change, on human health and health care delivery, have been inadequately explored. He envisions all these factors having considerable economic, social, ethical and human health consequences. A recent study by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found that in the year 2000, 874,000 deaths in the U.S. were caused by poverty, low levels of education, racial segregation, low social support, and income inequality. These causes combined caused as many deaths as were caused by heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer. Overall, the study found 4.5 percent of U.S. deaths that year were attributable to poverty alone.

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