Erin Coughlan de Perez was living in New York City when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.
One of the largest storms to ever hit the city, Sandy killed 44 residents, displaced thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage. “Being part of the community and seeing what went well and what didn’t – that influenced me,” says Caflan de Perez.
Now Director of Research and Dignitas Professor at the Feinstein International Center at the Friedman School of Food Science and Policy at Tufts University, Coughlan de Perez leads an international, interdisciplinary team of researchers in identifying methods to prevent negative health outcomes in the wake of climate-related disasters such as floods, typhoons and droughts.
The group, the Center for Global Research on Climate Disasters and Health (CORD), includes more than 25 named researchers and 10 doctoral students spread across seven universities in the United States, Bangladesh, Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, the Philippines, and Uganda.
CORD recently received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Over three years, researchers will use the grant to analyze vast amounts of data and identify pragmatic steps that can be taken in advance of predicted hazards to reduce, or ideally prevent, dangerous health outcomes for specific communities. affected by environmental disasters.
The hope is to eventually help establish protocols that will prevent cholera, malnutrition and diseases like dengue from occurring.
“Part of the idea behind this grant and what makes it so exciting,” says Coughlan de Perez, “is that we’re not just studying how bad climate change is. The point is not to write more studies that sea levels are rising or floods are devastating. The goal is to help future-proof health against climate catastrophe.”
Tufts Now sat down with Coughlan de Perez to learn more about how her group will identify preemptive actions, what role data will play, and how the findings can help prevent human health disasters.
Tufts Now: What exactly does yes mean future proof health versus climate catastrophe?
Erin Coughlan de Perez: This means predicting specific disasters in specific places and disconnecting those disasters from the harmful effects on human health.
Climate catastrophes are dire and vary around the world both in the forms they take and the results they lead to. We will initially look at six case studies, each led by researchers at one of the collaborating universities. Our aim is to build three different methodological approaches.
The first case study examines cholera and other diarrheal diseases among the refugee population in Uganda. Flooding and other climate-related hazards have a major impact on these refugee populations, as they often live in at-risk areas and have less access to services. We want to explore how floods may affect the health of refugee populations differently and what might need to be done differently to prepare for them and avoid negative health impacts.
The second looks at maternal and fetal health in Bangladesh. As the oceans rise, the water sources there become salty, and this has terrible effects, especially on pregnant women.
Two universities in South Africa then examined the links between drought and food insecurity, malnutrition and mental health. In particular, the mental health aspect is understudied. We want to explore what it means to live through climate-related crises that just don’t stop – how are people coping?
Finally, we have case studies examining cholera in Mozambique and dengue in the Philippines, both caused by cyclones.
Of course, it is extremely important that we continue to take steps to stop climate change, including reducing emissions and using green energy.
But this project is not focused on controlling or stopping climate disasters. We are already living in a changed climate and things are only going to get worse. What we need to know is how we can survive and thrive in this changed climate, especially for underserved and at-risk communities globally. How to manage the current situation and the situation in 20 years? What choices can reduce outbreaks and break the link between storms and human health outcomes?