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Home > Global Health Matters Sep/Oct 2021 > GEOHealth hub studies climate change in East Africa Print

GEOHealth hub studies climate change in East Africa

September/October 2021 Volume 20 Number 5

Family views flooding outside their homePhoto by Nancy McNally/Catholic Relief Services
Four East African countries have produced climate change needs assessments for their countries through the Fogarty-managed GEOHealth program.

Climate change-related health problems due to droughts, floods, heat waves, and vector- and water-borne diseases are increasingly affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations. Scientists in four East African countries have conducted studies of these complex issues, developed needs assessments and provided guidance to policymakers on how to address them. The research projects—which may serve as models for other countries—were supported by the Fogarty-led Global Environmental and Occupational Health (GEOHealth) program.

Rising temperatures have already begun to take their toll on Ethiopian health, said Dr. Belay Simane, the lead author of his country’s study, which was published in the Ethiopian Journal of Health Development. Ethiopia’s annual temperature has already risen more than 1.3° Celsius since 1960 and models suggest it could climb as much as 2.9° Celsius more by the 2050s. A warming planet has caused repeated droughts, floods and extreme temperature events in Ethiopia over the past few decades, explained Simane, who is a scientist at Addis Ababa University. Water scarcity leads to inadequate hygiene, which results in fecal-oral transmission of diseases. Meanwhile, floods are expected to become more frequent and more severe under most scenarios. Given that Ethiopia relies heavily on pit latrines, flooding can contaminate surface, ground and drinking water. An epidemic of cholera followed flooding in 2006, leading to widespread illness and loss of life. Diarrhea, a leading cause of infant mortality, is becoming a growing health risk, noted Simane.  

Hotter temperatures also spur climate-sensitive illnesses, including vector-borne diseases that require optimal ground, air and water temperature for the survival and reproduction of insects, Simane said. “The more the temperature increases, let’s say, 0.5° Celsius every 10 years, the larger the area of vector-borne disease—and the longer the transmission period—becomes.” Malaria, customarily prevalent in the lowlands, is moving into the highlands. The WHO estimates 68% of Ethiopians are now at risk of malaria. Other vector-borne diseases, notably dengue and visceral leishmaniasis, are already escalating due to climate change, Simane observed.

Water-borne and zoonotic diseases are increasing as well. Bacteria that live in water are more apt to multiply in warmer temperatures, while helminthic infections like hookworm (transmitted through soil) follow a similar pattern, said Simane. Zoonotic infections are already escalating. Currently, the nation has the fourth highest burden of zoonoses, which cause an estimated one-fifth of all human infectious diseases in low-income countries. 

Add to this the fact that global warming intensifies humidity and dust levels, two factors that increase the risk of meningitis outbreaks. Ethiopia sits within sub-Saharan Africa’s “meningitis belt” and Simane’s study reported certain types of meningitis have been diagnosed beyond those regions traditionally prone to the disease.

Yet, it is climate change’s effects on agriculture and nutrition that pose the greatest threat, said Simane. Heat stress has a negative impact on the crops themselves while also curtailing workers’ productivity. Some crops are no longer viable in higher temperatures, forcing a reliance on carbohydrates. The number of people sickened due to malnutrition will be greater than those affected by malaria and other climate-sensitive diseases, stated Simane. 

Addis Ababa University leads the eastern Africa GEOHealth hub, which includes universities in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The hub’s members meet regularly to share findings and all have completed similar national situational and needs assessment studies. The hub’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Abera Kumie, believes these reports can serve as blueprints for other low-resource countries seeking to clarify the impact of climate change and identify gaps in research, training and capacity.

The need for more research—and researchers—is urgent so that interventions can be developed and implemented, said Kumie. “The whole point of our project, our research, is to produce evidence that could influence policy change.” 

The East Africa hub has been supported by Fogarty, the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Study and Health, and Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

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