TDR environmental health research presented at health and climate colloquium

TDR news item
20 June 2016

The 2016 Health and Climate Colloquium recently held in New York helped raise awareness of the link between health and the climate. TDR-supported research was presented to practitioners, researchers, policy-makers, development organizations and UN agencies from around the world at the Lamont Campus of Columbia University.

From left, TDR scientist Bernadette Ramirez, keynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs, IRI’s Madeleine Thomson.
From left, TDR scientist Bernadette Ramirez, keynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs, IRI’s Madeleine Thomson.
WHO/TDR/Johannes Sommerfeld

The event, convened by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, aimed “to build a global community in support of health delivery and improved outcomes in a changing climate, with a focus on infectious diseases, nutrition and the public health outcomes of meteorological disasters.”

The three-day colloquium, co-sponsored by TDR, the WHO, the World Meteorological Organization, the Global Framework for Climate Services, the World Bank Group, the Nordic Development Fund, the International Development Research Centre, the CGIAR research programs on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, and the Earth Institute, was live-streamed to a global audience.

The keynote was delivered by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development. He spoke on global issues of economic development, poverty alleviation, health and aid policy and environmental sustainability. He stressed the importance of events like the Health and Climate Colloquium that bring people together to discuss problems on health, disease and climate change to think of pathways leading to sustainable development.

Five TDR research projects in Africa

Principal investigators on five TDR-supported research projects presented early findings on their work that is ending in 2016. “Population health vulnerabilities to vector-borne diseases: Increasing resilience under climate change conditions in Africa” was launched in 2012 with funding support from Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC).

Currently under way in 7 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tanzania) and the Sahel (Cote d’Ivoire and Mauritania), the projects investigate different vector-borne diseases (VBDs) among vulnerable communities and the impact environmental change (including climate change) has on these communities. The projects share a common approach to the problem – a holistic view of health and climate informed by a range of disciplines: everything from epidemiology, entomology, malacology, and meteorology to environmental and agriculture sciences, public health and statistics.

“We believe that this approach has great potential,” TDR scientist Dr. Bernadette Ramirez told attendees in her opening remarks to the colloquium. “One critical aspect is the involvement of the community, working with a range of public health, climate, social and economic research experts, to collect evidence and develop solutions,” she added. ”While the link between climate and health is well established, the health sector is still poorly informed about the health risks of a fast changing climate, especially in the affected countries.”

The colloquium offered the opportunity for updates on the projects and exploring how to continue the work.


Malaria and Bilharzia in Southern Africa

This project is studying where VBDs in arid areas of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa are most likely to occur. Primary investigator (PI) and Professor Moses Chimbari of the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, reported that malaria imposes a significant economic burden; health facilities are ill prepared to deal with bilharzia; and socio-economic status and level of knowledge are risk factors for contracting the diseases. Chimbari noted that increased awareness would create demand for disease control, and that affected communities should drive the development of strategies to reduce their vulnerability – such as an early warning system for malaria.

Combating VBDs in Kenya

Malaria and rift valley fever are the diseases studied in Baringo County. Professor Benson Estambale, the study PI from Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology in Bondo, Kenya, said, “Although transmission mechanisms and signs and symptoms of malaria infection were well known to the community, those of rift valley fever were poorly understood.” Climate modeling predicts a shift in the range that vectors cover, which could expose more people and animals to disease risks.

Protecting the Masaai of Tanzania

This project is designed to predict vulnerability and improve the resilience of the Masaai communities to infections like African trypanosomiasis. “We have found that the numbers of tsetse fly, which carries this parasite, vary with season and temperature,” said PI and Professor Paul Gwakisa, from Tanzania’s Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST). Studies of the variations of time and location help predict potential hotspots so that preventive measures can be set up. “These control efforts,” he said, “will be community-centered and owned, and designed to give priority to the socio-economic activities that sustain Maasai communities.”

Understanding the human-vector-parasite interactions in African trypanosomiasis

Severe increases in temperature in the Zambezi Valley over past decades are linked with substantial declines in local tsetse populations, the vector that carries the parasite for African trypanosomiasis. However, increased temperatures on the middle and Highveld of Zimbabwe, which have historically been too cool for optimal tsetse growth, might become more favourable for the flies. Lisa van Aardenne, who represented PI Professor John Hargrove, from the South African Centre for Epidemiologial Modelling and Analysis, at the University of Stellenbosch, showed their modeling in this area.

Malaria and schistosomiasis in Cote d’Ivoire and Mauritania

This team is working with communities to identify the socio-economic determinants of disease, and to develop tools to reduce their risk of infection. Dr Brama Kone, the PI and an environmental epidemiologist with the Swiss Center for Scientific Research in Côte d’Ivoire, explained how 2 dams - one on the Bandaman river in Korhogo in northern Côte d'Ivoire, and another on the Senegal river, near the city of Kaédi, in southern Mauritania - enhanced agricultural production in those areas, but local communities are now at increased risk of malaria and schistosomiasis.

The team has found that limited health care financial access and weak socioeconomic status are associated with increased malaria transmission. Dr Kone also mentioned that meteorological factors, particularly significant rainfall, are associated with a higher prevalence of malaria and schistosomiasis: “To fight both diseases, the communities mostly rely on local traditional strategies; support from institutional sectors does not appear to be a major source of resilience of communities.”

For more information, contact: Bernadette Ramirez.