After a 4-year hiatus, the natural climate phenomenon El Niño has returned, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declaring El Niño’s official 2023 start in June. While El Nino traditionally brings intense weather patterns, including increased risks of drought across India or precipitation in the United States, the weather phenomenon is also increasing health threats in many parts of the world.
Rising Temperatures & Malaria
Already, the impacts of El Niño, coupled with excess warming from climate change, are resulting in record-high temperatures, with July closing out as the hottest single month on record, and possibly in more than 100,000 years.
Extreme heat alone can be life threatening, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting 700 deaths from heat-related causes annually from 2004 to 2018, but as temperatures rise, the elevation range where malaria-carrying mosquitoes thrive is also rising.
Malaria, a climate-sensitive disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes, killed more than 600,000 people worldwide in 2021.
But as the planet warms, malaria is slowly migrating, as regions that have warm temperatures, humid conditions, and high rainfall are typically more prone to the disease.
Scientists now worry that people living in areas once inhospitable to the mosquitoes that transmit malaria, including the slopes of Kilimanjaro and the mountains of Ethiopia, could be newly exposed to the disease, reports the AP.
El Niño & Malaria Outbreaks
New research in the Malaria Journal found that malaria outbreaks often follow El Nino events, as was the case in Ethiopia. The study found El Niño years were strongly associated with higher temperatures and rainfall, two factors that contribute to driving malaria epidemics. In addition, the report found climate change is expected to continue its warming trends, resulting in increased rainfall and extreme droughts. The study’s lead author recently warned he “fears” malaria outbreaks could increase because of El Niño, especially combined with warming from climate change.
Additionally, El Niño conditions mean that between 2023 and 2027, the annual mean global near-surface temperature for each year between 2023 and 2027 is predicted to be between 1.1 and 1.8 higher than the average over the years 1850-1900, the World Meteorological Organization announced this year, as reported by The Lancet.
“Global mean temperatures are predicted to continue increasing, moving us away further and further away from the climate we are used to,” said Dr Leon Hermanson, a Met Office expert scientist who led the report.
“Even though we might look long-term with climate change, we actually have to be observing what’s happening at the moment. We have an alert around an El Niño, which brings a shift in climate in different parts of the world. We know in the past that has resulted in big malaria epidemics, particularly in some semi-arid regions”, explained Madeleine Thomson, Head of Impacts and Adaptation in the Climate and Health Team at Wellcome, UK. The World Health Organization also told The Lancet that “El Niño events such as flooding can also hamper the logistics of the response to malaria outbreaks and epidemics by disrupting essential malaria services.” The agency is working with countries to monitor malaria outbreaks and epidemics, including those related to El Niño, and support effective responses.
These warnings come as El Niño events are expected to become more frequent because of climate change, according to research published by The Nature Climate Change. And with El Nino expected to intensify over the next several months before peaking this winter or early next year, the health risks for 2023 are mounting.
Climate Change & Vulnerable Populations in the United States
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued its first health advisory on malaria in 20 years, after the first locally transmitted cases of malaria were contracted in Florida and Texas. And while it is difficult to say if the new U.S. cases are directly linked to climate change, weather conditions in the United States are becoming more conducive to malaria transmission.
In addition, the most severe harms from climate change fall disproportionately on socially vulnerable populations, less likely to have access to quality medical care, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the U.S., a recent report found almost all of the highest climate-risk communities are along the Gulf Coast – a flood-and-hurricane prone region with deep pockets of poverty, poor health, and economic and racial inequities.
Health and socioeconomic disparities are expected to be magnified by rising temperatures and associated disasters like hurricanes, wildfires and droughts, concluded the study’s co-author, Weihsueh Chiu, a professor in Texas A&M’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“The reason we’re seeing these rises in not only the Southern U.S. but other hotspots of the world is because of a confluence of four or five factors, which include poverty, urbanization, human migrations, and climate change,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, in a recent interview with National Geographic. “Those are all converging, and because of this constellation of forces, we’re seeing not only malaria but also dengue fever, Zika, chikungunya, West Nile, Chagas disease, typhus, and worm infections.”
Children are also uniquely vulnerable and more directly affected by climate change, according to the Children’s Environmental Health Network, as rising temperatures could also raise the risk extreme weather leading to increased malnutrition and increased allergies.
About Forecasting Healthy Futures
Forecasting Healthy Futures is a global coalition of leading health and technology organizations committed to mobilizing the political will, financial resources, and innovative solutions needed to protect global health gains from the threats posed by climate change. Malaria No More convenes and leads the consortium. Forecasting Health Futures’ partners include Reaching the Last Mile, Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, the Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE), PATH, the Tableau Foundation, IBM’s Weather Company, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). For more information, visit: www.ForecastingHealthyFutures.org.