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Climate Change Linked to Higher Rates of Disease
New Program Will Monitor Correlation in Andes

Linda Yun, Staff Writer

May 13, 2007: At 10,000 feet above sea level, the cool mountain air over Colombia’s high-altitude Andean ecosystems used to defend the region from diseases typically confined to tropical zones. But scientists fear that rising temperatures due to climate change may jeopardize the health and well-being of millions of people living in these mountains.

Diseases Spread as Climate Warms
Climate change is already bringing more of the tropics to the Andean region particularly by way of mosquitoes. Warmer temperatures allow mosquitoes to thrive and parasites to mature inside them before being transmitted to humans. As average temperatures increase, so have the instances of potentially fatal mosquito-borne illnesses.

The disease-spreading mosquitoes are biting Colombians furiously. Because a majority of the country’s population resides in the mountains, this is their first encounter with tropical illnesses. Dengue transmission rates increased fourfold between 1997 and 2002. Trends are equally troubling on the regional scale. In 2003 alone, nearly a quarter of all malaria cases reported in the Americas were in Colombia.

Dried-up Páramo Would Cut Off Water to Millions
These alarming rates compelled the Colombian government to study the impacts of climate change on its people, and the results were more cause for concern. In addition to higher disease rates and melting glaciers, the assessment projected that more than half of the páramo grasslands could disappear by mid-century.

The páramo is an ecosystem unique to five Andean countries. It is composed of plants that trap water and fog. Glaciers keep the páramo wet by transforming passing moisture from the Amazon rain forest into rain. If regional temperatures continue to rise, the glaciers will disappear, and the páramo could become a desert.

The páramo is the main watershed for Bogota, the capital city of Colombia with a population of 7 million. Ecuador’s largest city, Quito, also depends on the alpine grasslands for half of its water. If the páramo dries out, it will leave millions of people without adequate water supplies.

New Program Will Monitor Disease Rates, Climate Patterns
Colombia faces a sobering reality that illustrates the close ties between conserving nature and human health and well-being. The good news is that making improvements to one will benefit the other.

The National Institute of Health in Colombia, with support from Conservation International (CI) and other international partners, is designing a program to understand how climate change affects the spread of malaria and dengue, as well as the fresh water supply.

In two dozen municipalities throughout the Colombian Andes, a new monitoring system will track the rates of transmission and exposure for each disease and measure the data against climate patterns. The program aims to reduce incidents of the diseases within these places by one-third over five years.

“Restoring the páramo means safer water for major cities in several countries, not just one,” says CI-Colombia Director Fabio Arjona. “At the same time, it will protect not only a wealth of biodiversity found nowhere else, but the life-sustaining services this ecosystem provides to the entire region.”

Related Links
> Carbon Calculator: Offset Your CO2 Emissions
> Feature Story: China's New Energy Paradigm
> Feature Story: Species Need More Room to Survive Climate Change
> Feature Story: We Have What It Takes to Overcome Climate Threat
> Feature Story: The Galapagos: A Lab for Studying Climate Change
> Feature Story: Climate Change Compromises Our Security
> Feature Story: China is Taking a Closer Look at Climate Change
> Feature Story: Global Warming May Trigger Wave of Extinctions
> Conservation Programs: Climate Change
> Biodiversity Hotspots: Tropical Andes
> Conservation Regions: Andes
> Conservation Strategies: Human Welfare
> On the Web: CI-Colombia

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© Alejandro Alaya
Rising temperatures are allowing mosquitoes to move to higher altitudes, bringing the risk of tropical diseases with them.

© CI/Vlasova Urrea
Mosquitoes’ new travel patterns have made many Colombians vulnerable to tropical diseases for the first time.

© Alejandro Alaya
The unique páramo ecosystem supplies water to millions of people.

© CI/Vlasova Urrea
A majority of Colombia’s population live in mountainous areas. High in the Andes, there are many indigenous groups.

© Alejandro Alaya
Plants that trap water and fog help keep the high altitude grasslands moist.


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