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How to prepare for diseases caused by climate change

Jul 18, 2018 7:05:00 AM

We’re living in a time of unprecedented change and huge social and technological advances. All over the world the infant mortality rate has shot down while our overall lifespan has gone up and up. In terms of health and wellbeing, many countries all over the world enjoy better access to medical equipment, hospitals and medicine than ever before. This is in part thanks to technology, computing, the way the internet has democratised education and opened up medical knowledge to some extent. This is also due to the simple factors of improved infrastructure, richer economies, and increasing international aid.

One element that needs much more scrutiny is the disparity in healthcare between different countries. Despite an overall improvement to access and quality of healthcare globally, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine warns that the best and worst countries for healthcare have grown even further part. This is disturbing. What’s most unsettling about that fact, and what should serve as a warning sign for the world, is that many of those countries are those that are most at risk from climate change.

Climate change is an obvious risk to global stability, displacement of peoples, food and water access, and will have huge societal and environmental impacts. All of these are undeniable, but one impact that we seem to spend slightly less time worrying about is medicine and healthcare.

displacedpeople

The Impact of climate change on human infectious diseases: Empirical evidence and human adaptation, in Environment International Volume 86, explains some of the risks as follows:

“A warming and unstable climate is playing an ever-increasing role in driving the global emergence, resurgence and redistribution of infectious diseases (McMichael et al., 1996). Many of the most common infectious diseases, and particularly those transmitted by insects, are highly sensitive to climate variation (Kuhn et al., 2005, Tian et al., 2015a)... ...Other infectious diseases, such as salmonellosis (Chretien et al., 2014), cholera and giardiasis, may show increased outbreaks due to elevated temperature and flooding.”

The threats are real and they are something we need to pay more attention to. In a Guardian article on the topic, Director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, pointed out there are more and more deaths caused by air pollution and malnutrition, brought about by climate change, and that it is a grave health threat. He went on to say “I don’t think the health community has had a big enough input into climate talks,” Farrar told the Observer. “Bodies like the World Health Organisation have not made their voices heard.”

So with people already dying at the hands of climate change, what can we do to put us back on track? The answer has to lie in the one tool that allows us to predict the future, plan for natural disasters, and assess areas of need: computers. I’ve already written about this a month or so ago in the “What will the future of medicine look like blog”, but I wanted to expand on how this technology could improve healthcare looking to what can often seem like a bleak future when you realise the severity of global warming. This goes further than the new technologies that I mention in the blog, which will all definitely improve healthcare in the countries that already have the best access to medicine, but its those that are at the polar opposite that we should focus more of our energy on.

If countries such as Vietnam, Kenya, Honduras and Papua New Guinea are most at risk from climate change due to their weaker infrastructure and reliance on agriculture, then the diseases that accompany it will leave these countries devastated. They are already less able to overcome drought and natural disasters, and having the added pressure of an endemic could totally cripple these nations.

Where computing comes in is pretty simple: we can use giant simulations on distributed computers to predict where climate change will happen, the areas that will be worst hit, but most importantly we can play out these different scenarios in a virtual world to prepare ourselves and the most vulnerable countries for the long lasting effects of climate change. Then, distributed computers can also help us to find cures for diseases much more quickly and to tackle the new super-bugs that might arise in the future. Scientists can use distributed computers to crunch data at massive scale and run analyses in a matter of minutes or hours, rather than what would take them six to seven months currently. Take dengue fever for example, which Jeremy Farrar is anxious about with no vaccine or cure. Well, computing could help us to find both. If computing can allow us to pinpoint how different diseases attack our DNA in a day, we have a fighting chance of finding a cure and preventing a modern day plague or epidemic: this will be vital when the world is battling with drought, extreme weather and trying to manage displaced populations. This may be the saving grace for humankind.

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