Experts Issue Climate Change Health Alert for Rural Australia

“Health effects from climate change will stem from increased temperatures, irregular distribution of precipitation, air pollution and infectious diseases,’’ warns an academic paper from Dr Peng Bi, from the Department of Public Health, at the University of Adelaide.

Published in the January issue of the Australian Journal of Rural Health (AJRH), the paper predicts altered weather patterns will bring changes in the distribution of vector-borne diseases, such as Ross River and Barmah Forest viral infections, food-borne diseases and variations in daily mortality and hospitalisation rates, emergency department visits and the use of ambulances services.

“Studying the effects of climate change in Australian rural and remote regions is extremely important because of the unequal access to health care systems by those who live there. Moreover, most of the country’s Indigenous people live in remote regions and they could be more vulnerable as a direct result of global warming,’’ Dr Bi wrote.

The paper, jointly researched with Professor Kevin Parton from the School of Rural Management at Charles Sturt University, in NSW, predicts climate change will affect the eco-system to trigger extreme events such as heatwaves, droughts, flooding, cyclones and landslides. This will impact on food production by disrupting agricultural cycles.

“Australian society, especially rural regions, is becoming more vulnerable to natural disasters, at least in terms of economic costs, and these disasters are primarily climate-related. Rural and remote regions play an important role in the nation in terms of crops and pastoral production, biodiversity, environmental security and heritage protection,’’ the paper says.

It suggests a broader approach needs to be taken to identify impact scenarios across a number of indicators, including agricultural and food productivity, population health and social/economic development.

Furthermore, the paper says identifying and exploring relevant adaptation and mitigation strategies will be crucial for planners to gain a clearer understanding of the overall impact of climate change on regional Australia.

“Such responses might include changes in physical structure of resource management systems like reservoirs, changes in the operation of these systems, a range of socio-economic actions such as pricing and marketing mechanisms, community education and health promotion campaigns.’’

The results from such integrated study will expand existing knowledge and provide important information to government agencies and local communities for policy making, sustainable development planning and local community education campaigns to mitigate adverse consequences.

The AHRH Editorial, written by Dr Grant Blashki, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, says the health system will need to monitor and respond to the threat of infectious diseases in some vulnerable regions and also provide support for communities that are likely to bear the brunt of more frequent droughts in coming decades.

“A particular challenge will be to support those communities most vulnerable to climate change, which tends to coincide with regions already under-serviced such as rural and regional areas. Mounting an appropriate adaptive response to climate change will require strong and sustained support of Australia’s rural health workforce,’’ Dr Blashki warns.

This paper is published in the February 2008 issue of Australian Journal of Rural Health. Media wishing to receive a PDF or schedule media interviews with the authors should contact Alina Boey, PR & Communications Manager Asia at alina.boey@asia.blackwellpublishing.com or phone 613-83591046.

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