How Climate Change May Make Killer Diseases Worse

Climate change will likely increase the threat of disease, researchers say.

ByABC News
April 1, 2011, 5:54 PM

April 1, 2011— -- Malaria already kills a million people a year and now, researchers fear, climate change could make the problem even worse.

Working with the Kenya Meteorological Department, Madeleine Thomson, a senior research scientist for the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, has found that temperatures have increased significantly since the 1980s in the Kenyan Highlands.

Thomson, who has been working in Africa for the past 25 years, has looked at the possibility of increased risk of malaria from a rise in global temperatures for the past 10.

"Malaria is an appalling disease, particularly for those that don't have immunity, such as foreigners, young children and pregnant women, and also the people who live in the highlands who normally don't get malaria," Thomson said.

"When I visited Tigre, a mountainous region in Ethiopia, I met people with malaria in the highlands, and they were trying to understand what was going on," Thomson said. "We know that the rises in temperature that have been recorded at this site can significantly increase malaria. And it's the combination of climate change, drug resistant malaria and poor health conditions that can completely devastate an area."

Around the world, climate change is impacting human health -- from recent floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh that have caused widespread waterborne disease that the U.N. attributes to global warming, to malaria-infected mosquitoes migrating to increasingly high elevations in the mountains of Africa.

"Climate change will touch the pillars of our health, food, water and shelter," Dr. Maria Neira, director of public health and environment for the World Health Organization, told ABC News. "In Asia, there are more people at risk of dengue fever due to global warming. In Mount Kenya, mosquitoes are being found at higher and higher elevations."

Besides studying the malaria problem, Thomson's knows about the disease from personal experience.

"I woke up feverish and hallucinating," she said. "Fortunately, I worked for the U.K. government's medical research council in Sierra Leone and was treated immediately with effective drugs."

Many are not so lucky -- and others agree with her that the malaria could become an even bigger problem as the climate changes.

"As temperatures have been increasing, the mosquitoes that are transmitting the disease have better conditions to breed, reproduce, and transmit the disease," Neira said. "Vector-borne diseases are expanding their reach and death tolls."