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Information and communication technology & the public health response to disasters and climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean

Information and communication technology & the public health response to disasters and climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean

Natural disasters due to climate change is a threat now and will continue to be a threat to health in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The threat will continue to increase over the next few decades, potentially posing health risks to 200 million people by 2050, who will be displaced due to the environmental impact (Brown as cited in McMichael, 2012).

Climate change is defined as "a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods" (UNFCC). Changes in the weather over months, seasons, years or decades, affect aspects of livelihood and lifestyle such as disease outbreaks (e.g. malaria, diarrheal diseases, cholera), energy, food and water consumption, sports and employment.


The fact that many countries in the region are vulnerable to global climate change means that this is a development issue which will affect countries’ socio economic backbone and present challenges to human survival. The health of populations, particularly those living in low-lying and coastal areas, small islands, mountainous regions, and the poor who live in rural and urban areas, requires attention and preparation to mitigate against the negative effects of climate change.

 

New technologies including mobile phone SMS, crisis-mapping and social media have provided tools to bridge the health information gap, as evidenced in recent disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The internet became an important tool to find victims, by creating a central place for information on missing persons; managing information related to refueling points and access to food; and providing information on the state of the roads to aid efforts to rebuild damaged areas. Google Person Finder Haiti and Chile was launched as a tool to find missing persons after both earthquakes.

Information was disseminated through social networks, particularly Facebook and Twitter. Hashtags (a way of labeling posts or status updates) facilitated contact between groups about the disaster. The social networking groups and pages also encouraged donations to those affected. By communicating through these means, ordinary people in affected communities, diaspora and aid workers were able to improve health and save lives.


Examples of equity-oriented use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in public health in the event of disasters are less numerous, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, but they do exist.  One example was an innovative mapping project called Voices of Youth Maps, which targeted young people in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to digitally map vulnerability to flooding and landslides in communities.  The aim was to empower young people by teaching them how to minimize and prevent social and environmental risks related to climate change. In addition, the project fostered participatory governance by creating a platform for dialogue between youth, the community and government representatives.

 

It can be deduced that interventions that focus on reducing the impacts of climate change and the likelihood of natural disasters have a focus, though not explicit, on equity by reducing negative impacts on the most vulnerable populations (Farach & Mejia, 2013). If these interventions also include the use of ICTs, it is feasible to establish a relationship between equity, ICTs and natural disasters/climate change.

 

From a public health perspective, the approach to natural disasters and climate change has very often chosen the route of preparing hospitals and the health system in general for an impending catastrophe. It cannot be denied that this is a critical need; strengthening the capacity of health systems is important. However, one of the greatest demands of local communities all across the region is the need for information. This need includes not only access to information about risk prevention at the population level, but also at the government level, in order to plan (beyond health care services) disaster safety strategies for vulnerable groups. 

 

Technologies like mobile phones and the Internet mean information flow is increasing, raising expectations of humanitarian and international institutions, governments and local communities. There is a place for adaptive measures like the use of ICT in public health to decrease vulnerability and build community and national resilience to climate change. International cooperation that encourages the efficient use of ICT for the prevention and management of natural disasters is also important. The onus is on countries, and the region as a whole, to move beyond a clinical, reactive response to climate change and disaster, towards effectively engaging local communities in the health response through ICTs. 

 

 

References

McMichael, C., Barnett, J. & McMichael, A. (2012). Environmental Health Perspectives. An III Wind? Climate Change, Migration and Health. 120:5, pp 646-654.

Mejía, F. y Farach, N. (2013). Desastres naturales y tecnologías de información y comunicación: una revisión rápida de la literatura académica con enfoque en el cambio climático.  HYPERLINK "http://en.esacproject.net/node/2856" http://en.esacproject.net/node/2856 

Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (2011). Strategy and plan of action on climate change. Resolution CD51.R15. HYPERLINK "http://www.paho.org/hq/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=20292&Itemid"  http://www.paho.org/hq/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=20292&Itemid=

UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) HYPERLINK "http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/2536.php"  http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/2536.php

 

Young Professional of the eSAC Project and International Consultant at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO)