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Climate Change and the Prevalence of  Malaria

All we hear about is what Climate Change is causing… Climate Change is increasing… It really is never ending! Believe it or not, new research now poses severe risk to human health, finding an association between Climate Change and malaria. A question many of us ask is how global climatic changes can influence the spread of a disease. Here we explore this query, determining why areas around the globe, that are not currently transmitting malaria, will soon be at the centre of this epidemic.

First of all, malaria is a non-infectious disease transmitted from an Anophales mosquito bite. This type of mosquito carries a Plasmodium parasite, which is harmful to the human body, causing a range of symptoms from high fever and vomiting to anemia. After a while, the parasite will target the liver and cause life threatening complications.  

Flickr | WellunwellThis disease is typically prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical climates such as those of Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia. These climates are almost perfect for the Anophales mosquito to survive and subsequently transmit the disease from human to human. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malaria is considered the most deadly tropical disease, infecting 212 million people per year in 109 countries throughout Africa, Asia and South America.

How is Climate Change increasing malaria prevalence?

A key concern is that malaria is majorly climate-sensitive. A slight change in climatic conditions and the Anopheles mosquitos will migrate into new areas, spreading malaria further. Changes in temperature, rainfall and humidity will cause proliferation of the disease, carrying mosquitos into the high-altitude tropics and infecting people in previously malaria-free regions. The implications of this are worrying, as people in malaria-free regions have not been exposed to the disease, consequently not naturally or economically protected against it. For the areas already battling malaria, the growth cycle of the parasite will be disrupted, where it will be developing at a faster rate, increasing the burden of disease.

Flickr | Environmental Illness NetworkRainfall

Rainfall changes will be dramatic. High rainfall provides good breeding conditions for mosquitos. As soon as rain stops, the Anophales mosquitos start breeding as they favour fresh water collected after a rainy season. The incidence of malaria has already risen in South Africa and north-west India following unusual rainfall throughout the last couple of years. However, in areas where rainfall is expected to decrease, the opposite can occur and malaria transmission rates will be low.
A lot of research considers future predictions of the malaria incidence. A journal published by the European Commission states that even a small increase in rainfall across the Horn of Africa will cause a marked increase of malaria, where it is likely to spread into highlands above 2000m, areas previously malaria-free. These changes are expected between 2020 and 2040 and calls for important future planning to combat the epidemic.

Flickr | RafaƂ HerszkowiczTemperature

In terms of a warming climate, research in the rural Debre Zeit region on Ethiopia suggests the 37 million people who live in the area will be at a higher risk of malaria exposure. Even a 1 degree increase can result in doubling of malaria transmission! Although rural regions are currently prone to the exposure of malaria due to abundant water sources, we are already seeing a shift into highland regions. Malaria has ‘climbed’ mountains in Ethiopia and Colombia, to the extent that in warm years, cases of malaria moved into higher regions, whilst staying at lower elevations in cooler years. These mosquitos thrive in the warmth and really support the fact that malaria migrates as the planet warms, and is becoming dangerous to more people.

Flickr | D. BrandsmaMalaria’s shifting distribution to new regions is definitely a cause for alarm. The lack of preventative measures and protective immunity in these populations makes the epidemic severe for morbidity and mortality rates. As the globe battles Climate Change, we will almost definitely see a change in prevalence in malaria. With knowledge of variables such as rainfall and temperature altering the incidence, preventative interventions need to mitigate the impacts.


By Sophia-Harri Nicholaou Online Journalism Intern

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