Supporting Environmental Health in Southeast Asia

Rapid industrialization in Southeast Asia is producing widespread environmental pollution, creating unsafe workplaces, and raising grave concerns for public health.

To address these challenges, and strengthen the capacity of health professionals and policymakers in Southeast Asia, Mount Sinai physicians under the leadership of Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc, the Ethel H. Wise Professor of Community Medicine and Dean for Global Health at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, have established a formal collaboration with the Chulabhorn Research Institute (CRI) in Bangkok, Thailand. Under the auspices of CRI and the World Health Organization (WHO), the physicians are sharing their knowledge and expertise with health care workers in Southeast Asia. Mount Sinai is world renowned for its work in environmental and occupational medicine.

In July, Dr. Landrigan and Roberto Lucchini, MD, Director of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, led a five-day introductory training course in environmental and occupational medicine for public health professionals at CRI. They were joined by Melissa A. McDiarmid, MD, MPH, Director of the Occupational Environmental Health Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Mathuros Ruchirawat, PhD, Vice President for Research and Academic Affairs at CRI.

Participants in the course included nearly 50 physicians, nurses, and government health officials from Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam, who came to learn about pesticide poisoning, heavy metal toxicity, air pollution, and other environmental hazards.

“These countries are doing in 10 years what it took 100 years to do in the United States and England during industrialization,” says Dr. Landrigan. “And if they don’t handle the transition properly, there will be many health problems.”

This year’s introductory course will be followed by an advanced program either next year or in 2015, also through a collaboration between Mount Sinai, CRI, and WHO.

“The participants were very enthusiastic,” says Dr. Landrigan. “We felt we were training future leaders in public health who would have an appreciation of how environmental and occupational factors contribute to human health. They all know about the importance of nutrition and immunizations, and have anti-tobacco campaigns. But they did not know about the way air pollution and toxic chemicals effect people. This is fairly new information.”

Separately, Dr. Landrigan says Mount Sinai plans to establish a scholarly exchange in environmental and occupational medicine with the Faculty of Medicine Ramathibodi Hospital in Bangkok.

In addition, Mount Sinai is forging ties with the medical community in Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, which recently emerged from 50 years of military rule. Joseph P. Yoe, MD, a New York-based oncologist and past president of the Myanmar American Medical Education Society, says he would like to create an educational exchange between Mount Sinai and Myanmar’s medical schools in areas such as emergency and occupational medicine.

“As you know, Myanmar needs know-how and training to catch up with the rest of the world,” says Dr. Yoe. “Hopefully, Mount Sinai will be one of the leading medical institutions to participate in changes in Myanmar.”

To support the initial development of a partnership in public health with Myanmar, Drs. Landrigan and Lucchini met with The Honorable Pe Thet Khin, MD, MB, BS, Dr. Med Ed., FRCP, the Union Minister of Health for Myanmar. They are now working together to develop targets for preventive intervention.

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