Canada leads international team on health effects of climate change

Published June 6, 2011

For the first time, there have been epidemics of malaria, a mosquito-borne disease, among pygmies of Uganda. Photo: Hector Conesa

The Canadian Arctic, the Amazonian jungle, the fringes of an African rainforest-home to some of the most isolated and vulnerable people in the world, the indigenous populations of Canada, Peru and Uganda. Because of their dependence on the land for food and water, the health of aboriginal people is particularly affected by climatic changes. Indeed, they are already seeing dramatic effects due to changing temperatures.

Inuit hunters in the Arctic have fallen through early melting sea ice as they search for seals. For the first time, there have been epidemics of malaria, a mosquito-borne disease, among pygmies of Uganda. In Peru, unprecedented cold last year -below 100 Celsius-was blamed for an outbreak of pneumonia among the Shipibo and Shawi people, who have neither the clothing nor the housing to protect them from the cold.

Rapid economic and social change due to the decimation of mineral, forest and oil resources is having a significant effect on both the climate and the health of the indigenous groups. “We’re very interested in how people in these remote areas interact with their environments and how they perceive that their health might be affected as their environments change,” says epidemiologist Dr. Lea Berrang Ford, assistant professor of health geography at McGill University in Montreal.

With her husband, Dr. James Ford, she is co-leader of a multi-disciplinary team of scholars from Uganda, Peru and Canada studying the health effects of climate change on indigenous groups, along with factors that may help them adapt to some of these changes. The project is called Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC).

“As subjects, we selected a high-income people, the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic; two medium-income indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon region; and a low-income people, the Batwa pygmies of southwestern Uganda,” says Berrang-Ford.

The research unit takes a bottom-up approach rather than the top-down approach of traditional climate-change modelling and relies greatly on feedback and input from the people themselves. Rather than asking them to answer set questions, the researchers use a tool called Photo Voice, which trains subjects to use cameras and take pictures of how they see the environment impacting on their health. “In the Arctic, people took pictures of vodka bottles, which led to a discussion about alcoholism and how purchasing alcohol might constrain their ability to buy food,” she says.

In all three countries, subjects identified water security and food security as top priorities. These communities are in a state of transition in which they are still eating traditional foods but have increasing access to modern foods-Arctic fish and caribou meat but also frozen pork chops, for example. “They all perceived this transition as affecting health,” says Berrang-Ford.

In all three regions, traditional healing practices-often people’s first choice for care-are combined with modern western medicine. “In Uganda and Peru another priority was tick- and mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue,” she says.

The unit plans to pilot one intervention per community-with suggestions so far including medicinal herb gardens in Uganda, an online health-knowledge bank in the Arctic and agricultural training programs in Peru. Another goal is to train community leaders in adaptation to minimize health problems as the environments change.

The project is supported by a $2.5-million grant, spread over five years and funded jointly by the International Development Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

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  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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