Climate change and epidemic outbreaks - prevention is in respecting the environment

Epidemic outbreaks are getting more and more frequent even if sanitary conditions have improved all around the world

In the last century distances between nations have become shorter and shorter; this can be traced back to economic development which led to forging commercial links, as well as to progress in the transportation department not only of goods but also of people. Very often globalisation is seen as the “guilty” party of the more frequent manifestation of epidemic outbreaks that, without a network of exchanges, would not happen. The truth is that globalisation has little to do with the origin and possibility of infections, even if it plays a fundamental role in their diffusion and transmission. 

Environmental changes, including climate, are the causes of the re-emergence and the epidemic potential of various infectious diseases. In some cases, the connections are relatively simple, such as the exposure of human populations and other biological traits to unknown or harmless pathogens because they are normally unreachable. In other cases, the connections are much more confusing, such as migration, ecological disorders, drug resistance, rare cases of double infection and malnutrition. These sanitary challenges are more and more recurring, such as SARS-Cov, Avian flu, MERS-Cov, Ebola, Swine flu and Coronavirus all happened in the last twenty years, are driving innovative responses that involve emerging technologies, as well as new systematic approaches to the process that open new ways for diagnostic research and preventive measures.

Some simple cases that link climate change with a higher frequency of infectious diseases are:

  • · Manifestation of extreme events and natural catastrophes (including heat waves, tempests, floods);
  • · Environmental changes regarding the relocation of fauna such as deforestation;
  • · Foodborne diseases;
  • · Urbanisation and cementation;
  • · Waterborne diseases due to contamination hazards of groundwater;
  • · Neglected and emerging diseases.

The recognition that the health of people,  of wild and domestic animals and of the environment are closely interlinked in an interdisciplinary approach is an essential starting point for addressing these problems.

A research carried out by the Environmental Foundation for Africa during the manifestation of the 2015 Ebola virus, show that the destruction of forests intensifies the risk of transmission of the virus from animals to humans and also of all the other animal-borne diseases. According to the research, the continuous crumbling of the forests in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone contributed to the spread of the virus in the region because, when a forest is cut down, there are 75% more possibilities of interaction between animals and humans.

At an official launch in Monrovia, Tommy Garnett, executive director of the EFA, said that his organisation has worked in the environmental sector in Africa since the outbreak of the epidemic until today, creating awareness of the environmental problems West Africa is facing. EFA has worked in partnership with economic development actors, indicating that it is able to understand how various development activities have helped to improve or undermine the environment. The organisation also stressed the need for every economic activity to have a strong environmental protection component, to ensure that citizens' lives are not endangered every time development is implemented in economic terms.

"If there had been a strong environmental protection component in most departments, many factories would not be where they are now because most of the chemicals that they use have an impact on the environment and affect people's health" Garnett said.

The relationship between the spread of Ebola virus infections and deforestation recommends the integration of natural resource and environmental management as key elements for socio-economic development.

The report also suggests that policy-makers should have a precautionary approach to economic recovery plans as to reduce the risk of future outbreaks. This research was carried out by EFA with the aid of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Garnett said that at the height of the Ebola crisis many people lost their lives, while the survivors, especially those of forestry countries, decided to take a closer look at the forest area. This was to see to what extent the fragmentation was creating a region for bats from which they were expected to be able to transmit EVD to human beings.

At the same time, ERUM's Global Manager said that the result of the three new Ebola outbreaks in 3 different countries was the response of bats to fragmented forest landscapes, indicating that under such conditions. it is possible that several species of bats, other animals and humans who would not normally be in contact, could have contact. The study also revealed that the results of the epidemic in the three affected countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, resulted in over 11,000 deaths, massive social disruption and billions of dollars lost in economic activity.

Climate change refers to long-term changes in weather conditions and patterns of extreme weather events. This can lead to radical changes in the microbiologic habitat which in turn can result in a threat to human health, multiplying existing health problems. As an active agent, human beings can control the related health effects of climate change by taking proactive measures, including a better understanding of climate change patterns and health effects, as well as effective allocation of technologies and resources to promote healthy lifestyles and public awareness.

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  • L'Autore

    Andrea Radaelli


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