Essay: Why I should win the competition

I am a development journalist-photographer with a special interest in health and environment. I have been closely following these issues for over 20 years. Most of my reports are from South Asia, but I also have field experience in Europe and other parts of Asia. This year, I was fortunate to win an international award which offered a field trip to Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. The trip allowed me to see first hand the reality of access to health care for most people in that country. Following my Haiti visait, I wrote several reports for an Indian news agency, and a special report in the Lancet (UK) – Haiti’s Forgotten Emergency (23 August)

Currently, I live in Delhi, India’s capital city, and freelance for national, international, specialist and mainstream publications. Over the years, I have got increasingly interested in the ‘global’ dimension of many of the issues I have been following, because I am convinced that in the inter-dependent world of today, there is no such thing as a purely ‘local’ environment or health issue.

To me, one of the most telling illustrations of the link between a changing environment and exotic diseases, and the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ is a story which is familiar to Indian readers and others across the world. It broke in the summer of 2007 in Castiglione di Cervia. This village in northern Italy acquired international infamy because of its dubious distinction of playing host to the first outbreak in modern Europe of a disease that had previously been associated with the tropics. Panic gripped the residents as one person after another fell ill with weeks of high fever, exhaustion and acute pain in the bones. The mysterious malaise stalking the village sparked a hundred rumours: people pointed fingers at river pollution, the government, and most of all immigrants.

At the end, the mystery was solved. Italian public health officials disclosed that the people of Castiglione Di Cervia were, in fact, suffering from a tropical disease, Chikungunya, a relative of dengue fever, normally found around the Indian Ocean.The much-maligned ‘immigrants’ suspected of spreading the disease were tiger mosquitoes who had begun to thrive in a warming Europe. Its presence in Italy was the result of the Italian climate growing warmer, and more humid, favouring the proliferation of these mosquitoes. Chikungunya made its way into mosquitoes in northern Italy though no one in Castiglione Di Cervia had been abroad, because one of the first men to fall ill in the Italian village had a visitor in early July. That visitor, a relative, an Italian, had previously travelled to Kerala in India. The epidemic in a rural pocket of Italy established that tropical diseases were no longer necessarily confined to the tropics and that tropical viruses are now able to spread in new areas, far north of their previous range.

The link between degradation of the environment and resultant human diseases is known and reported in the Indian media, but forms a small percentage of the overall reportage on environment. From my personal experience, I feel that the ‘health’ angle, in a way, has made it easier to ‘sell’ environmental stories to gatekeepers in the media. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that infectious diseases do not respect geographic boundaries, and can cause sudden panic, as the Chikungunya flare-up in Italy demonstrated.

I am keen to cover the International EcoHealth Forum 2008, in Mérida (Mexico) early December and hope to be selected as one of the 5 journalists for this honour because the event offers a fantastic opportunity to interact with international experts on key issues underpinning the relationship between environment and health and to consolidate the field experience I have accumulated for over 2 decades. This would equip me to write on these critical issues with greater depth and understanding for the Indian media as well as for my international clients such as The Lancet, the British Medical Journal and the Bulletin of the WHO in the future.