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Climate and Public-Health Communities in training together

For the third year in a row, public-health professionals and climate scientists from around the world are visiting Columbia University's Lamont campus, where the International Research Institute for Climate and Society is based, to learn how to use climate information to make better decisions for health-care planning and disease prevention. They're taking part in the third Summer Institute on Climate Information for Public Health, organized by IRI, in partnership with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) and Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.


World leaders have grown increasingly concerned with finding ways to adapt to climate change and climate variability, which threatens the stability of many facets of life, such as energy, food, and water. Climate also affects the fundamental requirements for good health. The public health community recognizes the need to better understand climate's role as a driver of infectious diseases such as malaria and meningitis, as well as its potential to change the geographic distribution of disease.


"Droughts, floods, changing rainfall and temperature patterns-these all can have severe impacts on public health, especially in developing countries," says senior research scientist Madeleine Thomson. "They also often disrupt food production and limit access to safe drinking water, which in turn can make people sick and undernourished," she says.


By understanding climate, its associated impacts and its potential predictability, decision makers can start responding proactively. "The IRI has its roots in strong climate science, with a goal to enhance society's ability to understand and manage climate-related risks. That's why we're excited to again host a summer institute, bringing together a talented group of participants and our expert staff to explore the most effective ways to use climate information in decision making," Thomson says.



Summer Institute participants, past and present


View full map here



The 13 participants this year come from ten countries, including Ethiopia, India and China. They include heads of meteorological offices, laboratories and institutes, medical epidemiologists and researchers, program officers and medical advisors (see map for complete biographies). For two intense weeks, they will sit in on lectures and exercise sessions to introduce them to computational tools that integrate epidemiological data with available climate, population and environmental data.

One of the organizers is Patrick L. Kinney, Mailman School of Public Health professor of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the Climate and Health Program at the Mailman School. Kinney will be lecturing on the current impacts and future risks of climate change on health, as well as participating in a panel discussion on creating a "climate smart" global health community.


"The Mailman School and IRI are working together to develop innovative education and training programs on the critical health dimensions of climate variability and change," says Kinney. "In addition to the short courses like the Summer Institute, we are creating the first masters degree program on climate and health, to be housed at the Mailman School."


In addition to lectures, the participants will also attend numerous hands-on, practical training sessions, including one on IRI's powerful Data Library, a free tool that allows users to manipulate, view and download more than 300 data sets through a standard web browser.


Another practical session will be on how to use the global positioning system (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS) and Google Maps for public health, led by Mark Becker, associate director of CIESIN's geospatial applications division. "The professionals attending the Summer Institute strive each day to improve the health care and health outcomes of people around the world," Becker says. "Many of the issues they deal with have an inherent spatial component-for example, health care planning and understanding how climatic factors may contribute to disease. The course presents a unique opportunity to learn spatial analysis techniques to address these issues, and mapping skills to better communicate their message."


Exposure to these and other advanced techniques will hopefully provide the participants with a better understanding of how the climate and public-health fields can be integrated, says Gilma Mantilla, the Summer Institute's general coordinator.


"We've already seen an increase in demand for this type of training," says Mantilla. "We received 134 applicants for the 2010 course, and in the last year, we've helped organize summer institutes in Madagascar and Ethiopia. More are planned in every country where there are alumni."


Mantilla, who is the former deputy manager for Colombia's Public Health Surveillance and Control unit, believes the training course is a valuable platform for creating a global network of practitioners focused on policy and practice in public health and climate issues.


The Summer Institute runs from May 17 to May 28. For more information, please visit the course home page.

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