|Volume 60(1) – 2011
Partnering for health early warning systems
Health and well-being are the human face of climate change. The potential for climate change to affect human health has motivated much of the past decade’s research into the relationship between disease and climate. Between one quarter and one third of the global burden of disease can now be attributed to environmental risk factors, according to the World Health Organization (1). Because diseases are sensitive to weather and climate conditions, most of the health effects we can expect due to climate change are already occurring.
Public health strategies are focusing on increasing resilience to weather and climate-sensitive illnesses, which will improve our capacity to cope with the health effects of the present and future climate. Whether the climate reduces crop yields or increases extreme weather events, the consequences are ultimately manifest in health impacts.
Achieving the universal aspiration of good health requires clean water and air, food, shelter, sanitation, safety and freedom from disease. Access to medicines and quality health care is vital. Health also requires broad investment in social and environmental measures that help societies adapt to climate change. This will contribute to reducing disaster risks, ensuring access to clean water and improving food security, thus helping to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2).
Success depends on the interaction of diverse communities which are not natural partners. It also requires new skills that enable specialists in health, agriculture, water resources, disaster management, weather and climate to work together. Their collaboration in developing systems for early detection or warning of health risks is a key to mitigating the effects of diseases.
National bodies can play an important role in helping to ensure that the essential role of climate is taken into account in the decision-making systems of health practitioners. How can meteorological services work most effectively with public health services to improve health early warning systems? While famine early warning systems have a track record, in comparison, health sector early warning systems are relatively untried (5).
Early warning for malaria in Africa
The most advanced health early warning systems are for malaria (6,7,8). Guidelines developed in 2001 by WHO to establish and implement long-range forecasting and early detection provide concepts, indicators and planning to monitor malaria situations that may escalate towards possible epidemics. Monitoring of climatic indicators, population vulnerability factors and operational and environmental factors help detect when conditions suitable for an epidemic have already appeared at a given time and place. Such early warning systems have the potential to help the health community foresee potential epidemics weeks to months in advance. The aim is to identify the beginning of an epidemic by measuring changes in the incidence of malaria cases. At least eight African countries are developing malaria early warning systems. At present, however, long-range forecasting for malaria remains predominately research-based (9).
Malaria Outlook Forums in Africa are a good example of a user community (in this case health professionals) that is driving a process in which climate information is a key component. These forums were set up following climate information received in WMO Regional Climate Outlook Forums. The aim has been to create an operational early warning system for malaria, using both health and climate information. Malaria Outlook Forums have been held since 2004 in Southern Africa and since 2007 in East Africa and the Greater Horn of Africa (10). Meteorological and health experts from national agencies jointly develop malaria detection and response products best suited to various sectors, locations and time scales.
Early warning systems for heat
The past decade has also seen the development of heat-health warning systems, operating in at east 16 countries around the world. Good communication between meteorological services, emergency esponse communities and health agencies has been critical to success (8). Developing these relationships is not always easy, but the results are effective. The system can alert medical communities and care facilities (such as nursing homes) to prepare for a rise in patients with syptoms of heat stress.
Heat-health forecasts can also be used to alert people to watch out for family and community members, especially those that are socially isolated; remind patients to take prescribed medications on time; ensure that those at risk have access to health care facilities; and avoid high temperatures, humidity and poor air quality (2,11,12,13,14).
Supporting stronger working relationships
In efforts to improve warning systems, the public health sector increasingly recognizes that collaborative systems have a positive influence on the operational decision-making process (15,16).
A framework to improve communication and planning between health ministries and meteorological services is being developed in Africa. Pioneered in Ethiopia by its Ministry of Health and the National Meteorological Services Agency, a Climate and Health Working Group is becoming a focal point for climate and health issues. The goal is to create a climate-informed health sector and beneficiary communities that routinely request and use appropriate climate information to improve the effectiveness of health interventions (17). The group helps formulate institutional data sharing systems among the sectors and other relevant institutions; fosters research on climate and health; organizes workshops; identifies gaps and bottlenecks which constrain the routine use of climate information by the health sector, and identifies and pursues the means to overcome these problems; and helps build the capacity of national and local community-based organizations to widen and strengthen their services.
Health ministries and meteorological services in Madagascar, Kenya and West Africa are furthering this development. Madagascar, for example, has created a Climate and Health Working Group through an agreement between the Ministry of Health and Family Planning and its National Meteorological and Hydrological Service to reduce the burden of climate-sensitive diseases, focusing on malaria, plague and Rift Valley fever. The health sector in Madagascar can use climate information in warning systems for epidemics. Seasonal forecasts of temperature and precipitation, indicators of probable occurrence of malaria, can trigger greater surveillance of epidemics.
Real-time observations of temperature and precipitation can be used to launch selective interventions and help in the early disease detection (2). Spain, through the Agencia Estatal de Meteorología (AEMET) is supporting collaboration in West Africa between meteorological and health services through a project called HEALTHMET. It also contributes to the Meningitis Environmental Risk Information Technologies programme, known by its acronym MERIT. It is one of the first developed jointly between the health and climate communities (led by WHO, WMO and their partners) to develop decision tools to support health operations in the African meningitis belt (2).
Communicating warnings effectively
Communities must be aware of weather and climate-sensitive health risks if they are to protect themselves. Information must reach vulnerable populations, using messages that encourage people to act. Thus health forecasting and early detection must be linked to specific actions to reduce risk that are timely, specific and take into account the social and cultural factors that make people more or less receptive to information.
Météo-France, for example, has pioneered early warning systems for meteorological hazards using a vigilance system charting the severity of hazards with colour codes for each of its 95 French departments. After the 2003 extreme heatwave that resulted in many thousands of extra deaths during a 16-day period in Europe, the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance, in close cooperation with Météo-France, set up a heat-health watch warning system (13). The system aims to warn public authorities and the general public three days before a heatwave may occur, so that a national plan can go into operation, including use of television and radio spots, special assistance to people at risk (many of whom are already registered at their townhalls) and facilities to access clinical information on recent morbidity or mortality (2).
The Canadian Meteorological Service produces a daily air quality forecast with an Air Quality Index. Air Quality Advisories are issued when the air pollution levels exceed national standards. They are issued in partnership with provincial and municipal environment and health authorities, and contain advice on actions to protect health and the environment. A cornerstone is timely health messages encouraging Canadians to avoid exposure to unhealthy air and to take advantage of immediate access to prescription medication. These messages also motivate longer-term actions to improve air quality in Canadian communities. Similar activities are taking place across the border in the USA, as well as in Europe.
In the USA, most information presented by AIRNow, publisher of the Air Quality Index and other air quality guides, is based on observations. The US National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have also developed an Air Quality Forecast System to predict ozone levels as guidance to state and local air quality forecasters (18). The aim is to provide ozone, particulate matter and other pollutant forecasts with enough accuracy and advance notice to take action to prevent or reduce health effects. This development builds on numerical forecasting advances that incorporate chemical and weather forecasts. Within a decade, reliable air quality forecast guidance beyond two days should be available for an area of 2.5 km.
The United Kingdom has perhaps gone the farthest. It has developed a Health Forecasting Service within the Met Office, in collaboration with the National Health Service. The new service delivers tailored health forecasts to health care providers and individuals with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and seasonal affective disorder. The service predicts periods of increased risk and targets the individual at the right time to elicit a response. For seasonal affective disorder, for example, simple measures such as gentle exercise, keeping rooms at the right temperature and the use of light boxes improve health greatly. There are several applications of these techniques and enthusiasm among the clinical community is growing.
The UK Met Office Hadley Centre is conducting research to understand the impact that climate change is likely to have on human health worldwide, including changing risks of heat stress, air pollution, wildfires, floods, droughts and storms. It is reaching out to the health community to help them with decision-making tools for options to adapt to and mitigate changes in health risks over the next decades (2).
Multi-hazard warning in China
Using systems for multiple purposes can be cost-effective. Multi-hazard early warning systems can forecast a variety of natural hazards and health conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, cardiovascular disease and exposure to infectious diseases. It also facilitates coordination between relevant government agencies. Flood warnings, for example, draw upon government experts dealing with emergency rescue, health and veterinary issues and hazardous materials.
The China Meteorological Administration has such a model in the Shanghai Multi-Hazard Early Warning System, developed jointly with WMO and the Shanghai People’s Municipal Government. The new Shanghai Health-Meteorology Forecasting Service is designed to be an integral part of the warning platform.
1. Protecting Health from Climate Change - World Health Day 2008. World Health Organization, Geneva, 34pp, 2008.