Researchers developing digital tools to predict and prepare for the next infectious disease outbreaks have received a new boost, amid warnings that climate change will only make the risk of a pandemic worse. The Wellcome Trust, a London-based charity focused on health research, warned the climate crisis is a “health emergency” which is threatening the lives and well-being of communities around the world in many ways – including the spread of infectious diseases. To tackle this crisis, they announced that they would support global research to advance solutions to tackle the health threats created by climate change.
This support, which comes through a £22.7 million funding boost to 24 research teams across 12 countries, is aimed at developing “innovative digital tools” to model the relationship between climate change and infectious disease.
They noted that this funding would help the researchers address critical gaps in understanding about “where and when deadly disease outbreaks are likely to occur”.
This could save millions of lives by helping governments around the world to plan ahead, prepare healthcare systems and increase treatment accessibility and resources, and respond rapidly with “targeted and efficient public health measures”.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, Madeleine Thomson, Head of Climate Impacts and Adaptation at Wellcome warned that climate change is having a significant impact on how diseases emerge, re-emerge and spread.
She said: “Changes in global temperatures, or extreme weather like floods and droughts, can increase the risk of infectious disease transmission and spread.”
This could happen through environments becoming more attractive to vectors like mosquitoes, or could even arise from a lack of access to adequate healthcare due to crises and collapsed health systems.
She continued: “This, alongside other factors, can increase the risk of emerging and escalating infections which could pose a pandemic risk, impacting large regions of the world including the UK.
“The role that climate plays through its impact on the interactions between insect vectors, animal hosts, human behavior and the human immune system should not be underestimated.
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“If changing climates force humans and wild animals in closer contact, it is possible we will begin to see more ‘spillover’ events of virus transmission between animals and humans.”
Among the projects that have received funding include CholOut-EWS, which is developing software to model and forecast the risk of cholera outbreaks in Bangladesh and communicate these through a user-friendly early warning system for researchers and policy-makers.
E-DENGUE, which is the first-ever randomized control trial to evaluate the effectiveness of climate-driven early warning systems for infectious diseases, has also been supported.
The team will use dengue in Vietnam as a case study to develop one such system with a user-friendly interface aimed at local health practitioners to predict dengue incidence and outbreaks for early action.
As global temperatures continue to warm, more places are becoming suitable habitats for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Increases in extreme weather events like storms and floods can also contaminate water supplies and disrupt access to safe sanitation, causing the spread of life-threatening infections.
Last year in Pakistan record monsoon rains resulted in a devastating outbreak of dengue, and in Nigeria flooding accelerated the spread of cholera.
Prof Thomson continued: “While we are seeing the impact of the climate on infectious diseases mainly in low-resource countries in the Global South, this is not exclusive to this area and the UK is not immune to the effects.
“If climate change is left to proceed unmitigated, more countries could begin to experience diseases not previously seen in these areas. In fact, this is already being seen in the highlands of Asia and Africa as their climates warm and become more suitable for disease transmission .”