New consortium to probe climate change’s impact on health


While the polar vortex gripping many states this winter had people complaining about the weather more than usual, the discussion by a group gathered in a DMU boardroom on the snowy morning of Feb. 4 was even more somber in tone: Representing various Iowa colleges and universities, the city of Des Moines, nonprofit organizations and health care, these 18 individuals had a free-wheeling conversation about the implications of global climate change and the ways a brand-new Heartland Climate and Health Consortium (HCHC) could promote awareness and action on the issue.

Group members acknowledged that while this initial meeting wasn’t the time to make specific plans, they agreed that climate change is real, it has myriad serious consequences for our health as well as for the environment, and it will affect every living creature on the planet.

“Too many people don’t believe this is a real or significant issue,” said Anya Butt, associate professor of biology at Central College. “Education must be a huge focus, including that climate change is linked to health, and it will affect Iowa.”

Participants in the inaugural meeting of a climate change consortium included Des Mayor Frank Cownie and DMU COM Dean J.D. Polk, seated; DMU students Dan Cole and Dana Lowry; and global health intern Grant Hall, back row center.

HCHC members discussed potential effects of climate change on human health, including by causing threatening weather conditions such as storms and flooding; increasing the occurrence of infectious diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus disease; and endangering crops and food supplies.

Despite the enormity – and, in some circles, the controversy – of the ramifications of climate change, Iowa and DMU could be leaders in tackling them, said J.D. Polk, D.O., M.S., MMM, CPE, FACOEP, dean of DMU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. He and Yogesh Shah, M.D., M.P.H.’13, associate dean of global health, assembled the HCHC group after they realized some organizations in the state are already working on aspects of the issue. They include DMU’s global health program; the World Food Prize Foundation, headquartered in Des Moines; and the Simon Estes Foundation, created by the world-renowned operatic bass baritone to – among other efforts – provide mosquito nets to reduce rates of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, who attended the HCHC meeting, is a member of a bipartisan task force of mayors, governors and tribal representatives who are discussing sustainability, resilience and preparedness.

“If you’d told me six months ago that Des Moines could be the place where all these issues relating to climate change could come together, I never would have believed you,” Polk said at the meeting. “But several entities here are working on different aspects of climate change and its impact on health.”

Participants in the HCHC meeting agreed the group should be an educational advocate on the ways climate change affects health, beginning at the preschool level and incorporated across curricula. They agreed to continue meeting on a regular basis.

Relating to the group’s focus, the annual conference of the Heartland Global Health Consortium (HGHC) on Oct. 15 at Drake University will explore climate, nutrition and health. Held in conjunction with the World Food Prize celebration, the conference is open to the public. HGHC is a group of 10 Iowa colleges and universities, including DMU.

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