Global Warming and Malaria – Can Systems Cope?

A few hours ago the Associated Press reported from a meeting in Paris that leading scientists from 113 countries agreed, that “global warming has begun, is ‘very likely’ caused by man, and will be unstoppable for centuries.”  Their 20-page report will be available soon.  “Very likely” was translated statistically as 90%. The panel of scientists was created by the United Nations in 1988 and has been reporting every 5-6 years.

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Malaria as a disease is quite climate dependent.  Altitude and temperature are factors. Reports from highland areas of Africa indicate that changes in weather patterns, such as the El Niño, mean that, “these areas will experience more epidemics as a result of global warming” according to Koenraadt et al. (2006). This is supported by the Roll Back Malaria Partnership/WHO in their publication on malaria epidemics: “It is now better documented that important malaria epidemics in certain locales have been linked to El Niño/La Niña unusual events (the cyclical El Niño Southern Oscillation – ENSO phenomenon), which may lead to better prediction in terms of the magnitude of malaria epidemics and their health implications.”  For example, Ayamba et al. (2006) discussed the implications of El Niño conditions heating the ocean waters of the tropical Pacific Ocean during 2006-07 would lead to, “Increased risk for RVF (Rift Valley Fever) and malaria resulting from elevated mosquito vector populations, and cholera caused by flooding due to heavy rainfall in dry land areas.”

Patz and Olson (2006) indicate that a little temperature change can become a lot of mosquitoes: “Those who argue that we need not worry about small shifts in temperature should pause after considering the findings of Pascual et al. that a mere half-degree centigrade increase in temperature trend can translate into a 30–100% increase in mosquito abundance, in other words ‘biological amplification’ of temperature effects.”

Earlier this year, the Harben Lecture, printed simultaneously by The Lancet and Public Health, looked at the evidence for climate change induced disease pattern changes. More so, they expressed concern about the ability of malaria control programs to cope: “It is likely that additional populations put at risk by climate change will be in low-income countries, since it is generally assumed that more developed countries, which currently control malaria, will remain able to do so. Malaria in poorer countries is currently only restricted by climate factors in specific arid and highland regions. The ability of these countries to manage any climate-induced increase in malaria will depend on their capacity to develop and sustain malaria control programmes.” (Haines et al., 2006)  This is the crux of the matter – vulnerable populations are still vulnerable unless major progress is made in terms of health system reform, which in turn will be jeopardized if climate effects on agriculture and economic development also reduce the ability of countries to progress.

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