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Title: Claire M. Hubbard Professor of Health and Environment, University of Nebraska Medical Center, College of Public Health

Education: PhD, The University of Oklahoma; BS, Emporia State University


Public Health Law News (PHLN): Please describe your career path.

Bell: My PhD was focused on understanding the impacts of climate change on carbon and water cycles. After finishing my PhD, I was interested in pursuing a position focused on applied research because I wanted to do something that helped society. This led me to working on issues associated with applied climatology at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites. Because I was interested in expanding my efforts on human health, I developed a joint position between NOAA and CDC. After over five years working at CDC, I was recruited as a faculty member to the University of Nebraska Medical Center to work on issues associated with climate and health. This is how I got to my current position.

PHLN: How did an interest in carbon cycles and water cycles become an interest in natural disasters, weather, and their impact on health?

Bell: After I finished my PhD, I was interested in a career that was focused on doing applied research for the betterment of society. A good deal of my PhD research was focused on extreme weather, hydrology, and climatology, which gave me the knowledge and tools to work at NOAA. After a few years there, I was interested in understanding the connection between climate and human health. I discovered that CDC had a need for someone with my expertise, so I worked with colleagues at CDC to create a position jointly funded by NOAA and CDC to work on projects of interest to both agencies. I split my time and workload between the two agencies. To my knowledge, this was the first position of its kind. My work in this role provided me multiple unique opportunities. For example, I was a lead author on a report titled “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment” that was released by the White House in 2016. While working in this joint position, I developed a better understanding of the effects weather and climate have on human health. Because climate and weather impact our lives and shape our society, it is important that climate and environmental information are integrated into our planning and decision-making for activities associated with human health.

PHLN: Please describe your day-to-day job.

Bell: In my current role, I serve as the Claire M. Hubbard Professor of Health and Environment in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. I am focused on research, outreach, and education. Most of my work deals with issues associated with climate and health. My goal is to integrate climate and environmental data into projects associated with human health to help inform policy decisions. I am also very passionate about educating health practitioners and public health experts about how climate intersects with human health.

PHLN: What are your current priority projects?

Bell: I am working on a number of projects dealing with climate and health. My research group is finishing a project funded by the Society of Actuaries that will help determine the costs of heat waves on hospital admissions. We also have funding from NASA to better predict and monitor dust storms for human health issues. However, a large percentage of my time and effort is focused on understanding how drought in the United States impacts human health. My work on drought and health is funded by NOAA through the National Integrated Drought Information System.

PHLN: Is drought a problem in the US?

Bell: Drought is a constant threat in the United States. It is not uncommon for some part of the US to be in a drought at any given point. Recently, there have been some very significant and impactful droughts in the US. For example, the recent California drought had significant impacts on the state’s economy, agriculture, communities, and health. Over the last 40 years, drought has cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars of economic loss. Drought has also shaped our history and society. For example, drought caused the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression in the 1930s. There is also evidence that droughts are increasing in intensity and frequency in parts of the United States. Thus, drought is a threat today and will likely be a greater threat in the future.

PHLN: How is drought a public health threat?

Bell: Because drought is a slow-moving natural disaster, it is sometimes difficult for us to see the potential health impacts until it is too late. Most other natural disasters move in quickly and cause immediate impacts, but drought can stay around for weeks, months, or even years. However, drought is a health threat, because it is a threat multiplier. Drought can intensify heat waves—heat waves likely kill more people in the United States that any other climate- or weather-related disaster. Drought can decrease air quality by causing wildfires and dust storms. Drought can reduce water availability and water quality. Drought can also cause the spread of infectious diseases, such as West Nile Virus. These are just some of the ways that drought can cause human health threats and more work is needed to understand these relationships.

PHLN: How are you working to better understand drought and its impact on health?

Bell: We are addressing this issue in two different ways. First off, my research group is leading multiple research studies to identify the health impacts from drought events. One of our projects is looking at changes in mortality rates during drought events. The other way that we are addressing this issue is by hosting a series of national and regional meetings that bring together experts on drought and health to discuss their work, identify knowledge gaps, and determine opportunities for better engagement.

PHLN: What do law and policy have to do with drought and public health?

Bell (with help from Rachel Lookadoo, Director of Legal and Public Health Preparedness, University of Nebraska Medical Center): Law and policy are deeply interwoven into issues of drought and public health. From local regulations restricting water use in a drought to larger scale interstate agreements regarding water supply, policy informs and dictates many of the solutions and approaches used to address drought. As these drought impacts increase and worsen, more innovative and effective legal and policy solutions need to be developed. For example, policymakers need to consider using public health emergency declarations for drought. In past years, major floods have been declared public health emergencies, but we have yet to see such a designation for extreme drought in the United States. This type of declaration would make clear the connection between drought and human health, and would allow communities affected by extreme drought to access the benefits of a public health emergency declaration.

We’ve made an active effort to include the legal and policy perspective in our work on drought and health. At our National Drought and Public Health Summit, we were fortunate to have a representative from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who spoke on the legal advocacy work that NRDC does in relation to drought. Additionally, at our Midwest Regional Drought and Human Health Workshop, two attorneys from the Network for Public Health Law provided an excellent overview of the myriad of laws and regulations that can affect drought and water quality. They also participated in a facilitated discussion to determine possible next steps in addressing drought and health. We plan to engage the legal community at future regional workshops as well.

PHLN: Will you please describe the National Drought and Public Health Summit and the Drought and Human Health Workshop?

Bell: On June 17–19, 2019, the National Integrated Drought Information System and the University of Nebraska Medical Center convened a National Drought and Public Health Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. The summit brought together local, state, federal, tribal, nonprofit, and academic participants for a discussion around the linkages between droughts and human health. The goal was to discuss ways to properly prepare our public health agencies and organizations for the health hazards associated with drought, which, in turn, can reduce negative outcomes and save lives.

As a result of the summit, we are hosting a series of regional workshops that will bring together regional and local experts to discuss the role of drought on human health. The workshops are designed to inform, build communities of practice, and identify needs to address the health outcomes associated with drought.

PHLN: Who should attend these workshops and what are you hoping to learn from them?

Bell: The National Drought and Public Health Summit was more focused on public health, but the regional workshops are much broader. Our hope with the regional workshops is to attract anyone working in emergency management, public health, healthcare, or any field that is related to human health. We also want to help build a bridge between the drought community and the health community, so we are obviously interested in experts that are working on drought to attend. Our goal is to have the regional meetings be as diverse as possible. At the first regional workshop, we had experts from federal, state, and local governments, tribal representation, academia, nonprofits, policy, and the list goes on. Our hope is to inform the participants on the linkages between drought and health, learn from the attendees, and give everyone a platform on which to interact and speak.

PHLN: How can people learn more about the Drought and Human Health workshops, or about the effects of drought on health in general?

Bell: The best way to learn about drought’s impacts on human health is to attend the regional workshop. Please reach out to me if you are interested in participating. If you can’t attend the workshop, then read about the relationships between drought and health in a report titled “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessmentexternal icon.” If you are interested in integrating drought into your ongoing public health activities, I would recommend reading these two CDC guidance documents: 1) Preparing for the Health Effects of Drought: A Resource Guide for Public Health Professionalspdf icon and 2) When Every Drop Counts: Protecting Public Health During Drought Conditionsexternal icon .

PHLN: Have you read any good books lately?

Bell: Because of my new position, I haven’t had many opportunities to read for pleasure. However, I did recently read “Cattle Kingdom: A Hidden History of the Cowboy West” by Christopher Knowlton. I thought it was a fascinating book that does a great job describing the rise and fall of the open-range cattle era in the western United States.

PHLN: Do you have any hobbies?

Bell: I really enjoy hiking and traveling. I recently hiked in the redwood forests in northern California and traveled around northern Europe.

PHLN: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Bell: Thank you so much for this opportunity! I really appreciate it. If anyone has any specific questions about drought and health or is interested in attending the regional workshops, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Source of original article: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) / Public Health Professionals Gateway (tools.cdc.gov).
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