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Aussies Prone To Food Diseases As Earth Gets Hotter, Experts Warn

Food-borne diseases, malnutrition and depression will rise as climate change worsens, a peak health body has warned, as it urged governments to act on "serious" health-related impacts of a warming world.

While climate change's effects on the atmosphere and environment have been vigorously studied, less is known and understood about how it affects human health directly.

The Global Health Alliance Australia (GLHAM), a body of 47 health organisations, on Wednesday released a report outlining the wide-ranging pathways between climate change and medical conditions across Australia and the Asia-Pacific -- and ways to address them.

"Rising temperatures cause more extreme weather events such as fire and drought, but they also cause things like salmonella infection and food-borne disease," GLHAM Executive Director Misha Coleman told 10 daily.

"We hope these types of impacts will have a bit of cut through with people."

Climate change could increase the risk of food-borne diseases. Photo: Getty

The World Health Organisation recognises climate change as the most significant health threat of the 21st century.

Coleman, too, said climate change strikes at the heart of the world's great global health challenges -- from water to tropical diseases and agriculture.

The peak body reviewed about 150 scientific papers before identifying eight startling health impacts in its landmark report.

'Increased Risk Of Food-Borne Diseases'

The report outlined how rising temperatures will cause an increase in enteric and food-borne diseases, such as salmonella -- a type of gastroenteritis caused by bacteria found in poultry, meat and dairy products.

Climate change's impacts go beyond the physical environment. Photo: Getty

According to Rob Grenfell, Director of Health and Biosecurity at the CSIRO, the risk of food-borne salmonella increases by about 12 percent for every one degree of increase in ambient temperature. 

"With a warmer world, increases in salmonella have already been detected," Grenfell told 10 daily.

"Add to that some of the resistance for the strains that are actually out there, and we are heading towards a particularly worrisome future."

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Food-borne diseases already have a widespread impact on the country's economy. One study cited in the report found 5.4 million cases of such diseases across Australia in 2000 cost the economy $1.25 billion.

Grenfell said while food security has always been a public health challenge, climate change is creating "new threats", including the increased contamination of basic food stuffs. 

Greenpeace Climate Change Protest
Photo: Ali Donaldson/10 News First

Last week the federal health department sounded a warning after three cases of Listeriosis were diagnosed in elderly people in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Two of those people died, with smoked salmon traced as the likely cause.

READ MORE: Health Warning After Listeria Infection From Smoked Salmon Kills Two

"We certainly expect that we will have more incidences of food-borne infections into the future with warmer conditions," Grenfell said. 

"The only way to counter a lot of that is to have increased attention to how the food is handled, how it is transported and how it is served to you."

"This is still important now, but it will become increasingly important."

Photo: Getty

The report also cited increased rates of vector-borne diseases -- those spread by mosquitoes and ticks -- along with new diseases entering Australia from the Asia-Pacific, linked to warming climates.

In May, the CSIRO published research finding the tropical mosquito species  that spreads dengue fever, which is mostly found in tropical north Queensland, can survive in rainwater tanks and buckets in areas far further south.

"That's a frightening fact," Grenfell said.

"That means the diseases themselves could re-emerge in cities like Brisbane -- and even further south -- as the temperatures warm up." 

READ MORE: Disease-Carrying Mosquitoes Figured Out A Way To Survive Winter

The peak body of health groups is calling on government to address the "serious" climate-sensitive health challenges.

“When we understand that climate change is a health issue, and that health is already being affected here in Australia and across the region, it is clear that there is an urgent need for action,” said Professor John Thwaites, former Health Minister of Victoria and Chairman of Monash Sustainable Development Institute & Climate Works Australia.

The report sets out a nine-point plan, including calls for the Morrison Government to draw on the $2 billion  Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific fund it announced before the federal election in May.

"We're saying, why not spend that money on aspects of the health system?" Coleman said. 

"You don't have to talk about the fact these issues are climate-change related, but anything you invest in the health system has co-benefits." 

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is also expected to attend the Pacific Health Ministers Meeting in French Polynesia next week.

In a statement, Hunt's office said he was aware of the paper, and defended Australia's commitment to issues of climate change and health.

"Australia has a strong and resilient domestic health system, implementing a range of programs which address health conditions that may be susceptible to environmental pressures," a spokesperson said.

"Australia is committed to helping build climate-resilient health policy and programs in the Pacific. Under the Pacific Step Up, led by the Foreign Minister, Australia is offering practical and meaningful support to our Pacific neighbours."

Health minister Greg Hunt. Photo: AAP

The peak body also wants to see additional training across the health sector, along with climate change-related health issues included in public health plans of every state and territory.

"Those should include what we know is going to be happening, and putting in place responses -- both in terms of preventing climate change and responding to it," Coleman said. 

"We can basically get on with it while trying to get the federal government to move in this direction as well." 

READ MORE: Is A Failure To Act On Climate Change A Violation Of Human Rights? 

Featured image: Getty 

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au