At first glance, it might seem that we have taken a step back into time because as far back as 1967, the Surgeon General of a large developed nation announced that the time had come 'to close the book on infectious diseases'.
However, in the past five years alone, we have observed not only a resurgence of 'old' infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis but an emergence of 'new' diseases like HIV which causes AIDS and Ebola haemorrhagic fever.
Evidence is accumulating that many emerging and resurgent infectious disease outbreaks observed in recent years may have indeed been attributable to extreme weather conditions that have occurred in combination with or resulted in environmental change. An assessment of the effects of global climate change on emerging and resurgent infectious diseases has been recently made by UNEP, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and WHO. The report 'Climate Change and Human Health' (1996), anticipates that many of these impacts would be adverse unless strict measures are undertaken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels suggested by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Human interference with the natural flow of freshwater systems has accelerated the spread of some infectious diseases; dams and irrigation canals often serve as breeding areas for mosquitoes which carry yellow fever and malaria; water pollution can spark outbreaks of cholera and dysentery. Deforestation forces animals closer to humans in search of food. As a result, microorganisms for which these animals are the host, come into contact with humans, causing new diseases.
Human health and that of the environment are intimately interlinked. Diseases with an environmental factor as the cause, are largely preventable. Thus it is incumbent upon us who work in the field of environment to do our part in spreading the word so that in the not-too-distant future, we can indeed close the book on all infectious diseases.
Clearly, we must strengthen the call to men and women everywhere and advise on the benefits to be gained by protecting the environment. It is for this reason that we at UNEP join with WHO and all other concerned organizations and individuals in asking for a global response to World Health Day.
Effective management of the environment will help to halt and eventually stop these diseases. Working together, we can save both ourselves and the environment."
Working together to halt emerging infectious diseases
Message from Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP):
For more information, please contact:
Mr. H. N. B. Gopalan
Human Health and Well-Being Unit
Patricia L. Jacobs
P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya
UNEP News Release 1997/15