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Global warming may hit kids harder, pediatrics group says

By Marilyn Elias (USA Today) - January 29, 2007

Global warming is likely to disproportionately harm the health of children, and politicians should launch “aggressive policies” to curb climate change, the American Academy of Pediatrics said today.

In the first major report about the unique effects of global warming on kids, U.S. pediatricians also were advised to “educate” elected officials about the coming dangers.

There’s evidence that children are likely to suffer more than adults from climate change, says the report’s lead author, Katherine Shea, a pediatrician and adjunct public health professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“We already have change, and certain bad things are going to happen no matter what we do,” Shea says. “But we can prevent things from getting even worse. We don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

More greenhouse gases and a warming Earth will leave children particularly vulnerable in several ways, the report says:

•Air pollution does more damage to children’s lungs, causing asthma and respiratory ailments, because their lungs are still developing, they breathe at a higher rate than adults and are outdoors more.

•Waterborne infections, such as diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems, hit children especially hard. These infections rise sharply with more rain, which is expected as the climate warms.

•As mosquitoes are able to move to higher ground, the malaria zone is expanding. Kids are especially vulnerable; 75% of malaria deaths occur in children younger than 5.

The report briefly mentions that mass migrations are expected as regions become uninhabitable. “Children fare very poorly in these major population shifts,” says Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and president of the Children’s Health Fund. “They’re more fragile medically and nutritionally,” says Redlener, who wasn’t involved with the report. “They’re less resilient, less likely to survive.”

No matter what the risks, the pediatrics academy shouldn’t be sending its members out to lobby, argues Janice Crouse, director of a think tank affiliated with Concerned Women for America, a conservative public policy group. “Let them issue a scientific report, and people can judge whether it has validity. For a scientific group to use children as a means of advancing a political agenda is beyond the pale,” she says.

Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, briefed a Senate committee on the health risks of global warming last week. She mentioned increasing asthma, malaria and waterborne diseases but not children’s vulnerability.

The Associated Press reported that Gerberding’s speech was “eviscerated” by the White House, but CDC spokesman Tom Skinner denied it, adding that Gerberding said everything she wanted to say without constraint.

“This is not a political issue, it’s a public health issue,” Shea says. “If we know the health of children and future children is threatened, we have an obligation to act.”