If it felt like you caught the flu more severely last year than you usually do, you might be right. Arizona State University found a link between climate change and severe flu seasons, with warmer winters being the catalyst. This is one example of the proven link between climate change and infectious diseases, with the best researched vector being malaria. According to the World Health Organisation, malaria modelling shows that a global temperature increase of two to three degrees Celsius could result in a three to five percent increase in the number of people at risk of malaria.
That amounts to several hundred million individuals. The question is how to mitigate the risks of drastic weather events we can’t yet accurately predict.
MAKING THE CONNECTIONS
Dr Marion Morkel, Chief Medical Officer at Sanlam, says that every vector borne or water borne disease has the potential to become a pandemic. “Very often it is a race for humans to contain the epidemic by limiting travel, quarantining infected and exposed individuals, and treating patients as early as possible. A major concern is how climate change could catalyse or accelerate an epidemic (a disease outbreak that may spread through one or many communities) or pandemic (a global disease outbreak) event.”
According to the Washington Post, natural disasters cost $155-billion last year. Recently, the UN issued an alert highlighting the severity of our situation: it believes we have just 12 years (maximum) to prevent climate catastrophe.
The impact of it
The devastating outbreak of Ebola in the DRC has been tentatively linked to climate change, with experts highlighting how weather changes are shifting human and wildlife behaviour. For example, climate change could be causing humans to come into closer contact with the bats believed to carry the virus. This because of the impact on the bat’s habitat and movements, and food scarcity causing more people to turn to bushmeat. And shows the obvious and less obvious connections between climate change and disease.
Here, Dr Morkel outlines the links between climate change and disease, based on a review of scientific evidence:
1. It could cause a change in the actual pathogen or disease (the pathogen uses the climate to its advantage). For instance, studies in the increase of the vibrio bacteria causing cholera, show a change in the DNA subsets of the vibrio species with increasing temperature. The increased temperature favours the growth of the more infectious DNA groups.
2. It could widen the reach of previously contained diseases due to an increase in hosts, for example mosquitos.
3. As flooding increases, shorelines move further inland and rivers overflow, causing an increase in water borne disease. Similarly, disease could spread through wind and dust during drought spells.
4. As humans adapt to the change in climatic conditions, their migrations to safer environments also influence the spread of disease.
SO HOW DO WE MITIGATE RISKS?
Around the world, there’s a global focus on creating the prediction models that’ll accurately forecast future weather events and corresponding disease outbreaks. The big benefit of this is more time to prepare for both disasters and disease. Additionally, healthcare professionals are constantly looking for ways to eradicate diseases, with the spotlight on research and vaccine developments for ‘contained’ diseases that could escalate to a pandemic or epidemic following an extreme weather phenomenon.
Dr Morkel says that at the level of the public and private sector, we need to consider the source and address climate change at the highest levels. We need to educate people around climate change and disease outbreaks to limit exposure, and we need to make international funding available equally, even when a funding population is not primarily affected.
At the level of the individual, we can proactively mitigate risk by:
1. Educating ourselves about climate change and infectious diseases and practising safe hygiene methods, even in difficult environmental conditions.
2. Making the choice and sustained effort to reduce our carbon footprints and live in an environmentally responsible way.
3. Considering a flu injection well in advance of the flu season.
4. Making sure all our vaccinations are up-to-date.
5. Ensuring we have adequate medical insurance, and sickness and disability cover. Going forward, insurers may create bespoke products that specifically cover the threat of climate change-linked diseases. These innovative offerings could become one of the best financial defences against infectious illnesses.