As global temperatures rise, long-term changes in climate and wildlife habitat could have a significant effect on human health and increase the risk of infectious diseases like the coronavirus (COVID-19). Here are four reasons the battle against infectious diseases and pandemics is also about the fight against climate change. 

1. Changing weather patterns increase the risk of infectious diseases around the world. 

Climate variability and climate change are affecting infectious-disease transmission patterns in multiple ways. For example, diseases traditionally associated with tropical and subtropical regions are reaching new areas of the world. Rising temperatures and precipitation are making temperate, northern or mountainous countries more susceptible to outbreaks of “southern” or “low land” diseases like malaria. Nepal, previously too cool for dengue fever, suffered its first outbreak in 2006, with a handful of cases. Since then, the incidence of dengue has increased significantly. Before 1970, dengue fever caused severe outbreaks in only nine countries. Now it is endemic in more than 100 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

A projected increase in the frequency and intensity of disasters associated with climate change could displace a growing number of people. The World Bank estimates that, in three regions alone, there will be 140 million internally displaced people by 2050 due to climate change. As people migrate, they not only place substantial demands on the ecosystems and social infrastructures where they move, but also carry illnesses that emerge from shifts in infectious-disease vectors.

And a loss of wildlife habitat is linked both to climate change and to disease outbreaks. An estimated 75% of new infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they transmit from animals to humans.  Experts believe these diseases may be associated with increased human-to-animal contact as people encroach on animal habitats. Deforestation and mass forest fires are also responsible for habitat loss: they contribute to climate change or are caused by it, creating a feedback loop. According to EcoHealthAlliance, deforestation is linked to 31% of disease outbreaks such as the Ebola, Zika and Nipah viruses.

Figure 1 provides a framework on infectious disease transmission types, including human to human, animal to animal, and animal to human. Climate change is increasing the global emergence, resurgence and redistribution of infectious diseases risks across all of these.

Four main types of transmission cycle for infectious diseases
Figure 1 – Four main types of transmission cycle for infectious diseases (Source: WHO

2. Air pollution could help viruses become airborne and more deadly. 

Fine particulate pollution such as black carbon, sulfates and nitrates penetrate deep into the bloodstream and lungs, creating serious health impacts; these are also known to weaken the immune system. Preliminary research by Greenpeace in Italy, Harvard University in the United States, and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany suggests that air pollution increases the risk of COVID-19 spreading faster and becoming deadlier. New York City, Lombardy in Italy, and China’s Wuhan province – all urban, industrial areas with high levels of air pollution – were heavily impacted by the coronavirus. Scientists have suggested that air pollution particles may also act as vehicles for viral transmission. An increase in fine particulate pollution of just 1 microgram per cubic meter corresponded to a 15% increase in COVID-19 deaths. Sources of air pollution in cities – traffic, waste, energy and industry – are also the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Improving air quality and reducing emissions, especially in cities, could have significant benefits for fighting both viral and climate risks. 

Read the rest of the article here at World Bank Blog