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Drought's connection to public health explored at June summit

June 17, 2019

“Floods kill people, but droughts destroy civilizations,” said Jesse Bell, Claire M. Hubbard professor of Health and Environment at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha’s College of Public Health. UNMC

At the 2019 Water for Food Global Conference earlier this year, Jesse Bell joined a collection of drought experts on a panel to talk about an oft-overlooked aspect of drought, at least in the United States -- its effects on public health.

“Floods kill people, but droughts destroy civilizations,” said Bell, Claire M. Hubbard professor of Health and Environment at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha’s College of Public Health.

While residents of developing countries have a deep understanding of the effects of drought on health, Bell said there is a remove in the U.S., but more is being learned and shared of late about the consequences of drought here.

Bell takes that message to Atlanta June 17-19, where he joins experts with backgrounds in public health, emergency preparedness, climatology and drought at the National Drought and Public Health Summit.

The goals of the conference are to share current knowledge of research and preparedness methods, to identify gaps and determine future research and project possibilities, develop a drought-public health community of practice and to build a multi-partner National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Drought and Public Health Strategy based on the summit’s outcomes.

On June 13, UNMC announced that the College of Public Health will participate in a five-year, $175 million cooperative funding agreement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With the grant, Bell will lead research efforts to better understand the role of drought on U.S. public health.

Before joining UNMC, Bell worked as a research scientist at the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites-North Carolina. While there, he collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helping to produce the CDC’s guide, “Preparing for the Health Effects of Drought: A Resource Guide for Public Health Officials.” He was also a lead author of the White House’s 2016 report, "The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment."

During his time researching drought and public health in Asheville, N.C., Bell said he realized that it was a fertile topic due in part to the lack of information that existed on the subject.

“One of the things that became very apparent, especially here in the United States, is we really don't understand the health impacts associated with drought,” Bell said. “We typically don't think of drought as the human health threat. We think of it in the context of agriculture or maybe even water availability, but we don't think about it in the context of human health. But in the United States, drought has significant impacts on our country. It has changed the United States and shaped our history, going back to the 1930s with the Dust Bowl.”

Bell has joined National Drought Mitigation Center staff at prior workshops to discuss his research on the effects of drought on public health. During Bell’s presentation at the Water for Food Global Conference, he said that there is no code for “drought” when a patient is admitted to a hospital, so his research on the subject identifies events that may relate to drought -- heat waves, reduced water quality and access, food security, dust storms and wildfires among them -- to help quantify drought’s impact on public health.

"All of those things have potential human health outcomes that are attached to them," Bell said at the conference.

In an effort to limit the negative effects of drought on public health, Bell said he and other researchers have tried to identify vulnerable communities, such as farmers. While losses can be mitigated by subsidized crop insurance, Bell said that there is a growing body of stateside evidence that shows the effects of prolonged drought on mental health.

He said one of the many speakers he looks forward to hearing in Atlanta is Lori Peek of the Natural Hazards Center, who will be presenting her research on the topic. NDMC assistant director Kelly Helm Smith will attend the summit in Atlanta, and is presenting on the center’s background as well as contributions of drought and temperature to West Nile Virus risk in Nebraska.

Bell said the summit will be an important event for experts from a variety of sectors to share knowledge.

"The thing that I'm really excited about is, because we have all these different perspectives and we have a lot of people who have a strong understanding of the public health aspect or the emergency preparedness aspect -- as well as the drought academic community -- we're bringing them all together to understand what these linkages are and how to figure out all these issues that we have and how we can better develop these linkages for the future as well."

For more information about the summit, visit the website.

By Cory Matteson, NDMC Communications Specialist