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A new kind of partnership

How are climate change impacts affecting our health? An innovative new research partnership aims to provide some answers.

This year, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) launched a new Health Protection Research Unit (HPRU) in Environmental Change and Health. Led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in partnership with Public Health England, it is bringing together experts across disciplines to explore possible impacts around three key themes: climate resilience, healthy cities and health and natural environment.

It is one of 13 funded HPRUs and the first of its kind to focus on environmental change in public health. The aspiration is that by furthering research and harvesting evidence in this emerging area, the programme will feed directly into public health policy to both mitigate the negative impacts on human health, while maximising any benefits.

A collaborative network

Interdisciplinary collaboration is at its heart: "We're looking at very complex scenarios and questions," explains Professor Lora Fleming from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at University of Exeter Medical School. "If you want to address them, you have to get different institutions involved. Then you start finding new answers."

For example, while there has been significant research done on air pollution and some work done on pollen, there has been relatively little research into the combination of both and how, when land use is also considered, they affect human health. This is one area the programme is currently exploring.

The Met Office is collaborating on improving pollen forecasting by refining land use maps to identify the location of different types of trees and grass, while also examining the impact of their pollen on human health. They are also carrying out more complex research on how pollen and air pollution interact with each other and the possible impacts of this.

A shared focus

The research ranges from looking at how climate change might be impacting on diseases transmitted by creatures such as ticks and mosquitos, to mapping urban heat islands and using this to improve city environments. The scope is diverse but shares a common objective:

"We're developing a lot of models to better understand the mechanisms by which these climate risks affect human health, and also the factors that mediate that risk," explains Dr Sari Kovats, Director of the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"There's no point simply correlating weather to an outcome, we need to understand what decreases or increases vulnerability." For example, it may be understood that a heatwave increases the risk of dying, but is this risk affected by the type of housing people live in, or is human behaviour a more significant factor?

Part of the initial research involves looking at where best to focus efforts. For instance, the Met Office has been involved in exploring the impact of heatwaves and cold weather on human health by first analysing past research.

"The aim is to look at what's been done so far and try to make recommendations on how the HPRU can take this forward into the work we're doing," explains Peter Falloon, Manager for Climate Impacts Modelling at the Met Office. This includes making recommendations on how best to carry out future studies.

Ultimately, the hope is for the research to influence public health policy - and this is already beginning to happen, with some work now feeding directly into the Public Health England Heat Plan. The research unit is fully funded for the next five years, but this is an emerging area and the aspiration is to continue for years to come.