Climate Change and the Spread of Infectious Disease: A Partners in Health Perspective

Climate Change and the Spread of Infectious Disease: A Partners in Health Perspective
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By Jane Marks

It is possible to eradicate infectious disease if its chain of transmission can be broken, said Joie Mukherjee at a lecture at MBL this month.

But climate change impacts, such as severe storms and flooding, will prompt the spread of vector-borne diseases. And some communities are at higher risk than others, said Mukherjee, chief medical officer of Partners in Health, a Boston-based organization that provides health care options in impoverished communities around the world.

Vector-borne diseases are transmitted to humans by blood-feeding arthropods, such as mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. They include illnesses such as Lyme disease, Ebola, Zika and malaria.

While the spread of vector-borne diseases is related to a number of factors, people living in poverty are more likely to contract one and are less likely to recover from it, Mukherjee said. As global temperatures rise, these problems will intensify, especially in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti where many of these diseases are already prevalent.

Flooding, which is increasing with climate change, creates more standing water that can become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. This increases the number of potential carriers of diseases, which can then spread to people at a faster rate. Many communities living in flood zones are impoverished, so they will be more heavily impacted.

Underprivileged communities also have more difficulty recovering from storm damage, Mukherjee explained. Destroyed homes are not fixed adequately, leaving occupants exposed to the elements and putting more stress on their bodies. With their health compromised, these people are more vulnerable to contracting vector-borne diseases.

“When we think of climate change and the (factors) of these diseases, it is also about what are the living conditions of people (born into) poverty,” said Mukherjee.

While people with money can vacate the area before a storm hits, people living in poverty may not have the resources to do so.

“My concern with climate is that you will have people that can flee and the people that will have to deal with (aftermath) of climate change,” said Mukherjee.

However, there are ways to help the communities most at risk, which include improving health care availability, Mukherjee said. While doctors and medical personnel can be flown in from around the world to these areas temporarily, their time is limited and when they leave, their expertise leaves with them. Partners in Health is working on this problem, having hired and trained nearly 12,000 community health workers over the last 30 years to help patients receive needed care. These local health care professionals help provide a longer-term solution.

After the lecture, Dyann Wirth of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, an international leader in malaria research and a member of the MBL Board of Trustees, led a panel discussion with audience questions.

A video of Mukherjee’s talk and the panel discussion may be viewed here.