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Changing climate, spreading infectious diseases

Climate change is affecting our health by altering infectious diseases

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Atlas: Changing climate, spreading infectious diseases

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

May 2016 winner (open access)

Impact of climate change on human infectious diseases: Empirical evidence and human adaptation
Xiaoxu Wu, Yongmei Lu, Sen Zhou, Lifan Chen, Bing Xu
Environment International, Volume 86, January 2016, Pages 14–23

Read the story about the award-winning research

When a storm tears a village apart, the residents focus on saving their neighbors, salvaging their belongings and reclaiming their homes. But in the depths of the floodwater, infectious diseases can be taking advantage of the extreme weather event and spreading faster – and further – than usual.

Extreme weather events and gradual changes in climate can make us more vulnerable to disease outbreaks. In May’s Atlas Award-winning article, published in Environment International, researchers from China and the US have identified three main ways climate change is affecting diseases: by impacting on the pathogen itself, the host or the vector, and transmission or spread of a disease.

They say it’s time we adapt to climate change to protect ourselves from infection. But there are still some significant gaps in our knowledge, and the researchers say we need more studies proving climate change is altering the outbreak and spreading of certain infectious diseases.

“We need to increase our understanding of the impact of climate change and extreme weather events on infectious diseases,” said one of the study’s corresponding authors Dr. Yongmei Lu, Professor of Geography at Texas State University, USA. “At the moment there is so much uncertainty it makes predicting and preventing outbreaks difficult.”

Figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA) show the global average temperature increased by 0.74˚C in the 20th century, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted a further increase of between 1.5˚C and 5.8˚C in the 21st century. Added to heat waves, floods and droughts, these significant changes are in turn changing the diseases that threaten us.

“Changes in temperature, precipitation, wind and sunshine can all have an impact – direct or indirect, through the environment – on pathogens, hosts, and transmission” explained one of the study’s corresponding authors Dr. Bing Xu, Professor at Tsinghua University in China. “We need to be more proactive when it comes to understanding what’s happening and curb the spread of these diseases.”

The researchers carried out a review of the scientific literature using three sets of search terms: pathogen, host and transmission of infectious diseases; weather- and climate-related keywords; and selected disease names. They identified 400 peer-reviewed articles and government reports published between 1990 and 2015 and filtered this down, analyzing a final list of 131.

The literature revealed several ways in which climate change is affecting infectious diseases:

  • Direct impact on the pathogen
  • Increasing geographic spread through vectors and hosts such as insects
  • Increasing transmission via water, wind and dust
  • Changing human behavior
  • Through extreme weather events such as drought and flood

The researchers give three main recommendations. First, we need to increase our understanding of the impact of climate change on infectious diseases by carrying out more scientific studies showing cause and effect. Second, we need to improve the prediction of climate change and the associated shifts in infectious diseases across space and through time. And third, we need to set up local warning systems for the health effects of predicted climate change.

“The impact of climate change on human health is obvious, as we have shown,” said Dr. Xu. “Like resources, money, power and rights, climate change is distributed unevenly and unequally in this world – and so are its impacts. However, it goes beyond political boundaries, and beyond administrative boundaries. It calls for our collective efforts and collaborative wisdom beyond boundaries to reduce and proactively adapt to its impacts.”

Bing Xu’s speech from the Atlas Award Ceremony:

The impact of climate change on human health is obvious, evidenced by ourselves. Like myself, annually I have been experiencing this respiratory problem, losing voice for a week or so since 2008, the year that our family moved back to China from almost 15 years living abroad. I am lucky that I escaped from being sick last year, only because I travelled to Hainan island and stayed there for a few weeks during the spring festival. This year we almost celebrated the state of being healthy, because we tide over the harsh winter and foggy spring. But all in a sudden, it came late in the summer. Like resources, money, power, rights, climate change is distributed unevenly and unequally in this world, so its impacts, as we feel. However, it goes beyond political boundaries, and beyond administrative boundaries.  It calls for our collective efforts and collaborative wisdom beyond boundaries to reduce and proactively adapt to its impacts.

About Environment International

Environment InternationalEnvironment International publishes research that focuses on the impacts of human activities and the environment on human health. It provides academics, practitioners, regulators and policy makers a platform for sharing and discussing how human activities and the environment are shaping human health, and the impact they’ll have in the future. In this way, the journal helps create opportunities to minimize people’s health risk and maximize their resilience.

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Further reading

This article shows the link between past climate variability and the risk of H5N1 avian influenza due to wild bird migration.

This review looks at the changes in infectious diseases and vectors, the retreat of alpine glaciers and extreme weather conditions as profound threats to public health.

The effects of climate change in UK homes present challenges for public health, says this review – but mitigation and adaptation measures in homes can benefit health.

Climate change has adverse impacts on human health; this research suggests we need to adopt sound scientific adaptation strategies in advance to mitigate them.

This review suggests the human cardiopulmonary and gastrointestinal systems are vulnerable to the warming climate.

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