Scientists to Study Health Effects of Wisconsin's Changing Climate

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UW School of Medicine and Public Health

EarthMADISON - When "extreme precipitation" hits Wisconsin, it doesn't only wash away homes, flood streets and send groundwater into basements; it also floods our waterways with viruses and bacteria that can make us sick.
Climate scientists say that as our climate warms, these extreme rains are becoming more common. Consequently, public health departments need to get ready for more outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness caused by germs being washed into waterways from flooded sewage systems and farm fields.
A new study being launched by scientists across Wisconsin seeks to help prepare the state for public health problems related to climate change. Supported by a three-year, $900,000 total grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that looks at the health effects of climate change, the project is being led by scientists from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
"Our goal is to identify the most vulnerable areas so we can help inform citizens of health threats caused by our changing climate,'' said Dr. Henry A. Anderson, chief medical officer of the Wisconsin Division of Public Health and a UW School of Medicine and Public Health faculty member.
Dr. Jonathan Patz, professor of population health sciences and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, said it is an honor for the Wisconsin team to receive the first-ever major research grant of CDC that directly relates to climate change.
"We've pulled together a unique multidisciplinary team to conduct this research,'' Patz said.
The investigators include experts in public health, climatology, hydrology, microbiology and statistics.
Team members already have succeeded in applying global climate models to predict climate change effects at the regional and even local levels. Using a similar approach, some members of the team published findings earlier this month predicting that Wisconsin's average temperature could rise by four to nine degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century, according to Dr. Steve Vavrus, of the Nelson Institute's Center for Climatic Research.
In turn, this change will make extreme precipitation more common. In the 1990s, an extreme rainfall triggered a fatal outbreak of Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee, and flooding in 2008 led to more cases of water-borne illnesses.
Dr. Kristen Malecki, an epidemiologist with DHS and the department of population health sciences, said that the study will help identify environmental factors and rainfall thresholds that, in combination, pose the greatest threats to the safety of our state's drinking water.
"We're hoping to provide a roadmap for Wisconsin's public health system in preparing for more of these extreme events,'' she said. "The goal is to create better approaches for systematically addressing other public health risks from climate change."
Besides DHS and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, partners include the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, UW-Milwaukee, Great Lakes Water Institute, Medical College of Wisconsin, Marshfield Clinic, the US Geological Survey as well as the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), a collaboration between the UW system, DHS, and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Date Published: 10/01/2009

News tag(s):  public health

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