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As COP26 draws to a close in Glasgow, it seems that we can be cautiously optimistic about the commitments that have been made. More than 100 countries have pledged to reverse deforestation by 2030; global banks, insurers and pension funds, managing $130 trillion, have directed this wealth towards a low carbon future in a commitment to 2050 net-zero goals; and more than 40 countries have agreed to phase out coal-fired power by 2040, including major coal using countries like Canada and Poland. However, not all developments have been positive. Chinese President Xi Jinping elected not to attend COP26 and China have made no new commitments over the past two weeks – this is concerning, given China is responsible for a quarter of emissions globally.

But it is the intersection of climate and health that we are most concerned about – leading scientists and health officials have warned that accelerating climate change threatens unimaginable health consequences. Some regions of the world will increasingly be affected by extreme weather events, the spread of infectious diseases, and pollution. Extreme weather events such as flooding and short- and long-term rises in temperature could cause increases in transmission of vector-borne diseases in many countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) also reiterated its warning that health systems across both wealthy and lower income countries are not equipped to deal with the fallout of significant climate change, which it called the single biggest health threat facing humanity.

Malaria Consortium’s strategic response to the impacts of climate change on human health highlights the importance of resilience through enhanced surveillance, predictive modelling, as well as sustained and evidence-based interventions to counteract increased disease transmission risks.

Through our programmes in malaria endemic countries, we have worked with partners to promote the use of models using climatic and other risk factors to prioritise geographic regions and population groups for vector control, such as universal mosquito net distribution campaigns. Our response to climate change focuses on several approaches. We recognise the importance of enhancing the use of climate data for predictive modeling and outbreak preparedness, disease surveillance for early detection of abnormal increases and rapid response, evidence-based targeting of interventions to maximise impacts, sustained interventions to offset the effects of climate change, and monitoring effects of climate change on disease transmission to enhance adaptive and mitigation measures. Our strategy highlights the importance of climate awareness for a stronger delivery of health programmes:

  • Consistent use of meteorological data for model-based risk assessment needs to be applied to health programming – Climate variability and weather anomalies increase disease transmission risks and disrupt health service delivery. There needs to be systems in place to share and use data for decision making. We promote evidence-based intervention targeting based on model-based approaches using climatic and epidemiological data and other transmission risk factors. Closer collaboration between malaria control programmes and meteorological agencies is crucial.
  • Anticipating malaria upsurges is made more challenging by climate induced variables – Localised epidemics can occur as a result of failing to anticipate malaria upsurges and can cause a spike in deaths because of increased transmission, especially in populations with reduced or no immunity to the disease. Metrics like rainfall and temperature changes can help direct planning and response.
  • Robust surveillance infrastructures including entomological data monitoring is increasingly important – This will allow for more accurate predictions of abnormal weather and insect patterns. Prolonged drought forces nomadic and internally displaced people to move where they can access rainfall and assistance, increasing the risk of greater disease transmission.
  • Monitoring impacts of climate change on disease transmission – Research on the effects of climate change on transmission of vector-borne diseases should continue to inform adaptations to interventions and improve mitigation measures.

Only time will tell if the promises made at COP26 will turn into meaningful climate action. It will take a colossal, collective effort to respond to the threats of climate change and while they are an important step, many of the commitments made by world leaders will not culminate for decades. Right now, national governments alongside global health organisations need to bring climate awareness into strategies and programming, ensuring data is used to anticipate climate variability and make decisions on how interventions should be best adapted.

This will have a dual benefit of improving the health outcomes of the communities served by this sector and contributing to wider global efforts to improve the health of our planet.

Malaria Consortium’s Global Technical Director, James Tibenderana, had this to say: “Climate change could slow and reverse the gains that we have made in global health. We should act collectively, globally and locally to fulfill the promises at COP26 before it is too late because our wellbeing is inextricably linked to a healthy planet.”

Read our position statement on climate and its potential impact on vector-borne diseases.