How El Niño and a Hot, Wet Climate Facilitate the Proliferation of Diseases: A Comprehensive Analysis

Sign up to receive free updates on climate change and stay informed with the latest news in our daily digest email from myFT. Climate change and the warming effects of El Niño are causing growing concerns for public health worldwide. The increase in hot and wet weather is contributing to the spread of infectious diseases. This summer, the northern hemisphere experienced its warmest temperatures on record, and the arrival of El Niño has drawn attention to the health impacts of a changing climate.

A recent review by researchers at the University of Hawaii revealed that 58% of infectious diseases can be worsened by climate change. The researchers stated the importance of reducing emissions that cause climate change rather than adapting to the health consequences. They identified over 1,000 pathways through which climate hazards can lead to disease.

Richard Gleave, the director of scientific strategy and development at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), explained that as the climate continues to change, adverse weather events become more frequent and intense, creating favorable conditions for disease spread.

Past El Niño events have been linked to an increase in malaria cases in Venezuela and Brazil, dengue fever in the Pacific Islands, and cholera in South India and Bangladesh. Vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks play a significant role in transmitting these infections. The 2015-16 El Niño resulted in increased outbreaks of various infectious diseases.

Higher temperatures provide more regions for vectors to breed and survive. They also lead to an increase in biting frequency and duration, enhancing the chances of disease transmission and accelerating mosquitoes’ maturity.

Severe flooding has also been associated with dengue fever outbreaks, particularly in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bangladesh reported 135,000 dengue cases and over 600 deaths this year, exceeding previous records. Unusual weather conditions that contribute to a larger mosquito population were noted as the cause. The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that Bangladesh’s climate was becoming more conducive to disease transmission.

Mosquito-borne diseases are on the rise in Europe. The tiger mosquito, the primary vector for dengue fever, has spread across France in recent years. The country saw 65 locally acquired dengue cases last year, compared to 48 in the previous 12 years combined.

In addition to vectors, diseases can also spread through water, especially when flooding contaminates drinking water. Waterborne diseases cause 1.8 million deaths globally each year. Cholera is a prime example, spreading through contaminated food and water during storms, floods, and droughts that disrupt clean water and sanitation supply. The WHO reported 50% more countries than average experienced cholera outbreaks in 2022, the fifth warmest year on record. Other waterborne diseases include norovirus, E.coli, and salmonella.

Another less obvious factor is the increased use of air conditioning. Closed doors and windows for climate control reduce natural ventilation, making it easier for airborne infections to spread. Warmer and drier summers can also lead to increased soil evaporation and the release of dust into the atmosphere, which can transport pathogens like fungi and bacteria.

The WHO advocates for the concept of “One Health,” which recognizes the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health. Incorporating this approach into public policy is recommended to better understand how climate change affects diseases transmitted by animals, antibiotic resistance, and food safety.

Maria Neira, the director of the public health and environment department at WHO, emphasizes the importance of mitigating climate change to achieve enormous health benefits. By addressing the interaction between human, animal, and environmental health, we can make significant progress in combating the impact of climate change on public health.

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