UM Public Health Chair Attends White House Summit on Climate Change

José Szapocznik, Ph.D., professor and Chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences and Director of the Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute, attended the recent White House Public Health and Climate Change Summit in Washington, D.C.

The high-profile June 23 forum brought together senior White House officials, deans of public health, medical and nursing academic institutions, advocates for climate change and members of the Executive Branch, including the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The goal of the summit was to empower communities with information and tools to protect public health in the face of climate change and to provide an opportunity to discuss the important role the public health community plays in communicating and preventing health-related climate impacts.

Among the highlights, President Barack Obama delivered a recorded message to attendees. The keynote address was delivered by the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy. Other prominent speakers and attendees included Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murphy and members of Congress. The meeting also featured personal accounts from parents of children who suffer from asthma, a disease that has increased with elevated temperatures, particularly in urban areas. The President of the United Farm Workers of America also spoke on concerns of outdoors workers who are exposed to increasingly hot temperatures – an issue that greatly affects farm workers in South Florida, said Szapocznik.

Szapocznik attended the session on “Preparing the Next Generation of Public Health Leaders,” discussing President Obama’s initiative to encourage public health educators to incorporate climate change and its impact on public health as part of their curriculum.

UM’s public health curriculum and research addresses not only the impact of climate change on public health, but also strategies to reduce the carbon footprint by building walkable, mixed-used communities as well as the important role that parks and vegetation play in promoting walking, which is the primary form of physical activity in the US.

“The forum provided encouragement for us to help mitigate the impact of climate change,” said Szapocznik, adding that the meeting emphasized that issues in public health vary in different parts of the nation.

“In temperate climates where the population is not used to high temperatures, heat waves result in increased emergency room visit rates and hospitalizations. In fact, mortality risk goes up with temperature,” he said. “High temperatures also worsen the effects of pollution, which create increased risk to vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly.”

In subtropical climates such as South Florida, he said, elevated temperatures and even rainfall can result in increased risks for mosquito-transmitted diseases like malaria, dengue and chikungunya.

The summit was part of a commitment the President made earlier in the year to host a meeting of the Surgeon General with the public health community. It also was built on the recent Encyclical Letter that Pope Francis issued on climate change.

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