News / Africa

Warnings of Fatal Disease Outbreaks as Africa Warms

Health experts expect climate change to spread malaria, cholera and asthma

Darren Taylor

This is Part 4 of a 5-part series:   Climate Change
Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

When an internationally renowned science journalist and biologist began examining links between climate change and declining human health four years ago, he had no idea what he would discover.

But Dan Ferber, who writes for Science, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, was shocked at the “dramatic scope” of the health epidemics that higher temperatures are set to cause, especially in developing countries.

“Before I began investigating climate change, I never would have thought about the connections between global warming and outbreaks of infectious diseases…. Not for a minute would I have connected the drying of forests to surges in respiratory illnesses,” said Ferber.

Rising temperatures allow the malaria-carrying mosquito to expand into once-cooler areas, like the highlands of Kenya.
Rising temperatures allow the malaria-carrying mosquito to expand into once-cooler areas, like the highlands of Kenya.

Scientists say the planet’s becoming warmer mainly because of harmful emissions, such as carbon, from the world’s factories and power stations. They say the higher temperatures are causing more extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, which in turn are resulting in severe health crises.

Ferber recently wrote a book, Changing Planet, Changing Health, with one of the world’s top tropical health specialists, Dr. Paul Epstein.

Epstein is also associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. He’s working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a collection of scientists mandated by the United Nations, to assess the health impacts of changing weather patterns.

Researching their book, Ferber and Epstein traveled the world, uncovering previously unknown ties between climate change and such life-threatening illnesses as malaria and cholera.

“Small changes of just a couple of degrees Celsius can be enough to change the range of infectious diseases,” said Ferber. “The threats are quite dramatic and nobody’s paying enough attention to this.”

Climatologists have estimated that temperatures in large parts of Africa will increase by four degrees C by 2100 – and possibly much sooner.

Malaria to be widespread

Ferber warned that Africa should begin preparing for significant rises in insect-borne diseases, especially malaria. He said warmer temperatures will allow mosquitoes that carry malaria to live and breed in areas that were previously too cool for them.

This is already happening in some parts of Africa, said Kevin Chika Urama, a Kenyan ecological economist who’s analyzing the effects of climate change on Africa.

He explained that people had originally moved to the highlands of East Africa, in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, to escape from mosquitoes infected with malaria. But, with temperatures rising, Urama said the disease is now prevalent in the higher areas that were previously malaria-free.

Droughts can boost diseases like cholera, which thrive in polluted and unhygienic drinking water.
Droughts can boost diseases like cholera, which thrive in polluted and unhygienic drinking water.

Ferber’s visits to East Africa confirm this analysis. “In the central Kenya highlands there is now malaria in areas where there didn’t used to be malaria because it is warmer, which gives an advantage to the mosquitoes which can (now) live in areas that used to be too cold for them. And the malaria parasite can live inside the mosquitoes and reproduce faster (because of the warmer weather).”

According to the World Malaria Report 2010, there were 225 million cases of malaria and almost 800,000 fatalities from the disease in 2009. Most of those who died were children in Africa.

The World Health Organization estimated that a child dies from malaria on the continent every 45 seconds. The disease accounts for about 20 percent of all childhood deaths in Africa.

If Africa continues to warm, said Urama, these statistics will be far worse in the near future.

Warmer sea = more cholera

Health experts said the higher intensity and longer droughts that are expected to sweep Africa because of climate change will boost levels of water borne diseases, such as cholera. Droughts cause an absence of fresh, clean water for drinking and washing, and cholera thrives in such dirty, unhygienic conditions.

Cholera is an infection of the small intestine caused by a bacterium. Its symptoms are profuse diarrhea and vomiting, which in turn result in dehydration and, if not treated, is sometimes fatal. Cholera is contracted primarily through drinking water or eating food contaminated by feces from an infected person.

Climatologists say forest fires caused by dry weather can lead to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Climatologists say forest fires caused by dry weather can lead to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Epstein has worked as a doctor across Africa, including in Mozambique. In the late 1970s, he found himself in the midst of a cholera epidemic at Barra on the country’s north coast. “That was the first cholera epidemic in that area in the memory of the medical profession,” said Ferber. “At the time, no one knew where this cholera was coming from and why it was such a serious outbreak.”

More than a decade later, American microbiologist Rita Colwell made groundbreaking findings about the causes of cholera epidemics. Her work led to Epstein establishing a connection between cholera and climate change.

Colwell discovered that the cholera bacterium “hid out” in the ocean. There it piggybacks on tiny animals called zooplankton that eat tinier plants called phytoplankton.

Ferber explained, “What Dr. Colwell found was that in the event of ocean waters warming, it would cause blooms of phytoplankton and the zooplankton would thus also bloom. Storms would carry the zooplankton into inland waters, carrying the cholera bacteria, and (that) would initiate cholera epidemics.”

Scientists say higher global temperatures are warming the oceans. Epstein has concluded that the warmer the oceans, the greater the possibility of cholera epidemics, and the higher their intensity, in the near future.

Asthma and smoke from fires

Ferber said elevated greenhouse gas levels and hotter weather are causing more people worldwide to suffer from respiratory diseases, especially asthma.

He explained, “Allergies trigger asthma. And allergies get worse as the temperature rises. Pollution triggers asthma – and the hotter the weather, the worse the pollution…”

All over the world, said Ferber, hotter weather and less rain are killing forests. This, he emphasized, has serious implications for people’s health. “If you turn forests into tinder, you get large increases in forest fires and large increases in smoke in the atmosphere. Smoke…causes increased risk of heart attack and increased respiratory problems.…”

Health authorities in Russia estimated that almost 60,000 people died as a result of the violent heat wave that struck the country last year. They said a large proportion of this toll died from respiratory stress as a result of inhaling smoke from the many forest fires that erupted during the intense heat.

End the ‘gambling’

As a first step to a healthier world, Ferber and Epstein want to see the creation of a new global treaty that commits all countries to drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to embracing renewable, clean energies.

If this doesn’t happen soon, said Ferber, the world will continue gambling with its survival, and it will be filled with much more disease and death than it currently is.

“We have solutions available that can both help the global economy and help mitigate climate change and adapt to what’s coming,” he said, adding, “The good news is that by moving towards renewable energy solutions we’ll create the basis of a 21st century economy. Simultaneously we’ll create the basis of wellness for people throughout the world and preserve the world’s natural resources, without which we will all perish eventually.”

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs