Thailand border migrant framers © The Global Fund, John Rae
Climate Change is one of the biggest threats humanity has ever faced. Bill Gates recently said that “if we’re going to prevent a climate disaster, climate-specific interventions and solutions aren’t enough. We need to be thinking about the indirect effects, too, like how a warmer planet will affect global health”.
We all notice extreme climate events or changes in weather. Floods, heat waves, desertification, and droughts capture the headlines. But the health effects of climate change go well beyond these visible events. Are we guilty of discounting the longer-term (both direct and indirect) impacts of climate change on health? Are we failing to plan for them? To some extent, yes. There is a real danger if we continue doing so.
COVID-19 is a stark reminder of what happens when we fail to plan. Even the best health systems in the world have struggled to deal with this deadly pandemic. The economic fallout is also upending the lives of millions. Dr. Margaret Chan, the former Director-General of WHO, said that “climate and weather variables affect the air people breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and the chances that they will get infected by a disease”. Thus, climate change is likely to have an impact similar to COVID-19. Only, it will play out over a longer period of time.
The relationship between climate change and malaria
Climate change is creating more suitable conditions for vector-borne diseases such as malaria. The parasites that cause malaria, and the mosquitoes that carry these malaria-causing pathogens, thrive in warmer and wetter conditions brought upon by a changing climate.
As a result, mosquitoes are expanding their range, and malaria is moving into new places where both people and health systems are not used to fighting the disease. The periods when mosquitoes can reproduce and transmit malaria are also getting longer. Since the Asia-Pacific region is highly susceptible to climate change, it will put millions more at risk of malaria. Vulnerable groups such as women and children and populations living in remote and difficult-to-access areas with weak health systems are at high risk.
How are countries adapting their malaria response to climate change?
Hotter weather and more erratic rainfall will be a reality even if global climate targets are met. Indeed, we already observe this in countries in the Asia-Pacific region. For example, higher temperatures are replacing the relatively cooler climate in the mountainous areas of the South Asian subcontinent. Countries are already finding the increasing trend of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue in these parts.
How are countries adapting to this new reality? Nepal identified vector-borne diseases as one of the highest priority areas for the health sector and formulated adaptation strategies for awareness raising, community engagement, and conducting research and pilot studies. Bhutan conducted a systematic (national) vulnerability and adaptation assessment on health outcomes of climate change. The need to integrate climate information with disease surveillance was identified as a key priority. Odisha state in India is tackling climate change through a ‘whole of government’ response uniting the efforts of different government agencies. The Solomon Islands has developed a climate-based malaria monitoring and early warning system (MalaClim) to provide early warning of a potentially severe malaria season.
The Asia-Pacific region has made tremendous progress against malaria in recent years. Climate change jeopardizes this success and we cannot afford to be complacent.
Even as COVID-19 forces countries everywhere to rethink their health paradigm, let us take this opportunity to also bolster our defences against climate change. This is the time to build systems to assess risk for malaria vis-a-vis climate change; build local capacity and awareness among health staff on the topic; strengthen health systems in such a way that it strengthens the response to climate-sensitive vector-borne diseases such as malaria; and, enhance mechanisms to promote coordinated action among health and non-health sectors.
We urge all countries in Asia-Pacific to act now. Climate change is not something that will hit us in the distant future. It is here now and it is already impacting health and livelihoods of communities across the globe.
By: Vaibhav Gupta, Country Acceleration Director, APLMA