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Diseases don't respect academic boundaries either...

Yesterday marked the second day of a convening in Nairobi, Kenya focused on Linking Climate and Health Research to Reduce Africa's Infectious Disease Burden. The meeting was sponsored by and was co-hosted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and IGAD Climate Predictions and Applications Centre (ICPAC). The convening has brought together a range of African and international experts from such diverse fields as climate science, human and animal health, genomics and bioinformatics, wildlife conservation, entomology, economics and sociology.

As a South African medical doctor with training and experience firmly fixed on human health, I am continuously struck by the enormous challenge of communicating usefully across academic disciplinary boundaries in a way that allows the science to inform relevant, practical action. While the information on climate variability and change was fascinating, I still struggled to understand how and why this could have direct implications for the day-to-day work of someone like me.

Fortunately, the convening included several case studies designed to illustrate the real benefits of collaboration. First, we looked closely at the Kenyan outbreak of Rift Valley Fever (RVF) in 2006/7. A mosquito-borne disease, Rift Valley Fever can be fatal to both humans and livestock, and carries an enormous economic cost. In late October and mid-November of 2006, two early warnings were issued based on evidence of above-normal rainfall that could be detected using remote sensing imagery. Unfortunately it was not until weeks later when the first human cases were observed that the outbreak was recognized, despite the fact that several livestock deaths had already occurred. Although the climate-based warnings and animal deaths were both early indicators of potential human disease, these opportunities for intervention were missed due to communication gaps between the different scientific communities. It's often said that diseases don't respect national boundaries, but RVF is the perfect example of a disease that doesn't respect academic boundaries either. As the Kenyan example shows, successful control of disease in humans requires collaboration with those working on environmental, animal health and insect science issues (at a minimum!).

Two other presentations described the use of climate-based early warning systems for malaria in the East African highlands and Botswana. Encouragingly, these systems have been used successfully to plan malaria interventions in health facilities right down to the district level through programs such as the Highlands Malaria Project.

What was clear in from these discussion is that information on climate variability and change might just be critical for even ordinary docs like me.

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