Bitten by the Travel Bug: Climate Change and Vector-borne Diseases

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Seven years ago, at the age of 17, I flew to Tanzania to do some work experience in a hospital in Iringa. On my last day I was sat in an antenatal clinic; almost every woman we had seen had come in with either HIV or malaria. About the latter, the doctor had commented that mosquitoes loved the Tanzanian climate; as they thrived so well, prevention was key, or they were never going to eradicate the disease. At the time, I didn’t think much of what he had said; I had exams and university applications to think about. Plus, I thought the prevention he was referring to was education. But with the increase in research on climate change and vector-borne diseases in the last few years growing, is prevention also stopping global warming?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), vector-borne diseases account for over 17% of all infectious diseases worldwide. A carrier for the disease, like a mosquito or a tick, ingests disease-producing organisms by blood-sucking an infected animal or human, and then later infects another individual during a subsequent meal. Currently, vector-borne diseases are mostly found in tropical and warm climates, and affect the poorest populations. Research has long shown that their distribution is determined by various environmental and social factors; tropical and subtropical countries allow for transmission all year long due to favourable conditions. However, this could change as temperatures rise due to climate change.

In fact, the 11th European Congress on Tropical Medicine and International Health (ECTMIH) reported that the climate crisis is the biggest overall challenge to health due to mass migration, new emerging diseases and the effect climate change will have on health and nutrition. Although research on vector-borne diseases and climate change is being carried out, little can be found on how governments and public health systems are utilising the information to set up prevention protocols.

Recent research published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases focused on two mosquitoes species that can carry Zika, Yellow Fever, and Dengue and carried out a series of modelling scenarios to determine how the geographical range of these mosquitoes will be affected by climate change. Under the most extreme model devised, around one billion people would be exposed by 2080, with Europe and the UK significantly affected. Additionally, the research predicts that, especially in Southern England, malaria and other vector-borne diseases could persist a couple of months a year in a cyclical fashion, which would lead to possible yearly outbreaks. The paper outlines some recommendations for countries at risk to limit mosquitoes spread both though surveillance in high-risk locations like highways and ports, as well as developing protocols for vector control to try and prevent permanent mosquito prevalence.

FridaysforFuture and other climate change initiatives are taking momentum across the globe; individuals are taking responsibility for their carbon footprint and lifestyle choices, but that is not enough. If more isn’t done we might be left not only with no polar regions, coral reef destruction and deforestation but a vector-borne disease epidemic in countries that currently do not have the protocols and infrastructure in place to deal with it.

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