By Soumya Karlamangla
LONDON (AlertNet) – Shifts in the world’s climate and responses to those shifts – including construction of more irrigation systems – threaten to increase the spread of malaria, health experts say.
Because malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes, its distribution patterns can be altered by changes in weather conditions, including changes in temperature, humidity, rainfall and the general availability of fresh water, said Suad Sulaiman, a malaria expert and health and environment adviser with the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences.
“With the variations ... due to climate change, mosquitoes are gradually adapting to the new conditions. With heavy rains, floods and other changing factors, more malaria prevalence is being observed in areas where the disease is capable of being transmitted to more people,” she said in an e-mail interview.
Worldwide, malaria claims one million lives each year, according to United Nations data. More than 85 percent of the world’s malarial deaths are in Africa, where it kills one child every 45 seconds, according to statistics from the World Health Organization.
“Malaria is the major health problem of Africa. Malaria disease has been with the African people for thousands of years, yet African people are still experiencing a wide spread of the disease, which is claiming the lives of many, particularly children and pregnant women,” Sulaiman said.
IRRIGATION BOOSTING RISKS?
Recent agricultural expansion has contributed to the spread of malaria, she said, because as new irrigation schemes and dams pop up, anti-malaria precautions – such as efforts to avoid standing water in which mosquitoes lay eggs - are frequently left by the wayside in attempts to save money and time.
She said that health problems associated with new irrigation projects and changes to other water systems will only worsen if agricultural investment does not include measures for preventing the spread of diseases like malaria.
Africa is looking for economic development to help combat its poverty rate, which is the highest of any developing region in the world. A report released just last month by United Nations organizations pinpoints industrial growth as the way to create jobs and revitalize the continent.
However, industrial expansion requires more urbanization and construction, which, if not done properly, can lead to health and safety risks, Sulaiman said.
“Fast changing economies, fast human population growth and movement of humans to live in new areas previously unpopulated have to be taken as confounding factors which have led to a vast increase of malaria with climate change,” she said.
While recent spikes in malaria outbreaks in parts of Africa, particularly in highland East Africa, have been blamed on climate change, Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and researcher with the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, said that scepticism about the correlation between the two is warranted.
Over the past century, for instance, the worldwide incidence of malaria has decreased despite a growing buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And since changes in the locations that malaria outbreaks have long occurred, they cannot be linked solely to climate change.
Still, which climate change’s exact implications for the spread of malaria remain unclear, the problem needs attention, said both Bernstein, who published a paper in April about the effects of climate change on children’s health, and Sulaiman.
“I think it would be foolish to assume that we’re not increasing the risk of malarial incidences” as world temperatures rise and water cycle patterns change, he said.
Effectively, “we’re playing roulettes here; we’re doing uncontrolled experiments” by failing to curb climate change, he said. “It’s exactly the kind of risk, especially when the consequences are so great, that you (should) really do everything to avoid.”
To prevent increases in malarial outbreaks, Sulaiman said efforts should be made to maintain environmental conditions that are unfavourable for mosquitoes’ breeding. She called for progress toward a malaria vaccine, and efforts to improve fast malaria diagnosis and treatments throughout Africa.
She said that since young children and pregnant women are most at risk from malaria, special attention should be given to protecting them from being bitten by mosquitoes.
Awareness of malaria, among local people and at a government level, is important, she said, as is taking advantage of information technology to better document and compile information on malaria cases in each country in order to help prevent the spread of the disease.
“Do we really have to be sure that the changes in malaria spread and transmission (are) due to climate change?” she asked. Regardless, trying to curb the disease is crucial “if sustainable development, improvement of health services and poverty reductions are to be addressed,” she said.
“The fact that malaria incidence and prevalence is increasing cannot be denied. Tools to counteract this killer should be a worry of all of us," she said.
Soumya Karlamangla is an AlertNet Climate intern.