Public health school commits to White House pledge on climate change, health education

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Sam Hardgrove | Hatchet Staff Photographer

The Milken Institute School of Public Health has joined a White House campaign to further education about the connection between public health and climate change.

Climate change and public health may not seem like a likely pair, but they soon will be at GW.

The Milken Institute School of Public Health was one of 30 public health and nursing schools to sign onto a White House campaign, committing to educate students on the relationship between climate change and public health, according to a White House release. The school is now incorporating lessons about the topic into its existing curriculum and will begin offering the courses in the fall.

Dean Lynn Goldman said the school has added the effects of climate change on public health to its introductory environmental health class. The course covers the trends of temperature and weather pattern changes and how they can impact the spread of disease.

She said there is a defined relationship between new weather patterns caused by climate change and diseases that are spread through organisms like mosquitoes.

“We signed the commitment because we recognize that there are documented health effects of climate change today and that these changes are growing in significance over time,” Goldman said in an email.

She added that students in the public health school have already shown interest in the relationship between climate change and disease. The school offers electives in environmental health, which cover the topic more thoroughly than the overarching introductory course. It has classes about environmental and occupational health in relation to a sustainable world, and courses about the controls and risks of biological and chemical hazards in the environment.

“These impacts [of climate change] include increased numbers and severity of heat waves, changes in distribution of vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever and the health impacts of weather changes from severe storms to droughts,” Goldman said.

Four of GW’s peer schools also signed on to the pledge, including Emory, New York, Tulane and Vanderbilt universities. Howard University is the only other D.C. school to sign the pledge.

Melissa Perry, a professor and the chair of the environmental and occupational health department, said the department centers many of its studies on climate change and its effects. She added that it “is constantly updating course content to incorporate new evidence on the health effects of climate change.” She said the school also plans to add an online course about public health and climate change.

Perry said public health students tend to do research on climate change, including working in a national research program that studies climate change and its consequences, including those on public health.

“In addition to working with our department’s professors, our students and alumni work with think tanks, federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, non-profits, and academic institutions,” she said.

GW’s public health school is also creating more programming related to climate change, including a town hall meeting next week to discuss a report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program about the role of climate change on public health.

Igor Zurbenko, a public health professor at the State University of New York at Albany, said some studies suggest that climate change plays a role in the spread of diseases like salmonella, but it can be hard to pinpoint the cause of an epidemic because so many factors can contribute to an outbreak.

“Everyone should be very cautious to make strict inferences,” he said.

The National Institutes of Health has conducted studies in southeast Europe in 2011, indicating that salmonella spreads faster in places with warmer climates. The study found that outbreaks of the disease peaked in the summer months.

Zurbenko said warm weather has been shown to have a hand in increasing the spread of disease. Bacterial diseases tend to thrive in warmer weather, making it more dangerous for human beings as global temperatures rise in certain areas of the globe, he said.

The public health school’s commitment comes as part of a movement to increase awareness of President Barack Obama’s climate data initiative. Obama launched the program last year to encourage government agencies to educate Americans on how they can slow climate change and prevent significant public health issues.

The commitment includes more than 150 sets of data from government organizations like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to help educate Americans on health and the environment, according to the White House release.

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