This year has seen a number of extreme weather events around the globe, from hurricanes in the Americas to devastating flooding in South Asia. The loss of lives, homes and livelihoods are made worse by subsequent disease outbreaks: after the South Asian floods, more than 12,000 cases of watery diarrhoea were reported in Bangladesh. Presumably, many more cases are unreported.
As our climate changes, severe weather events (especially intense rainfall) will become the “new normal”. The connection between climate and disease is well established, even in less extreme situations.
This makes it vital that our meteorologists, climate scientists and health systems work closely together. Particularly, health professionals should make better use of weather forecasts to proactively manage disease risk. Climate outlooks – with a longer-term perspective than weather forecasts – can also help with long-range tactical and strategic planning.
The link between climate change and disease
Climate change projections consistently indicate increased climate variability. A more variable climate creates conditions for the spread and control of infectious disease. In particular, changes in the intensity and duration of rain can help spread pathogens through water.
Both floods and droughts can increase waterborne infections, either when clean and dirty water mix during floods, or through inadequate storage and concentration of toxic organisms when water is scarce.
These risks are not restricted to countries with limited resources. In Australia, fluctuations in the sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean (a phenomenon shown by the “Indian Ocean Dipole”) are linked to spikes in rates of waterborne diseases like cryptosporidiosis, which cause gastrointestinal illness.
NSW Health documents, obtained earlier this year by the ABC, reveal that more than 100,000 NSW residents were issued protective boil-water alerts in the past five years. These residents lived in areas where pathogens like cryptosporidium were found in unfiltered drinking water pumped from rivers, lakes and dams. A more variable climate can increase these risks.
Research suggests we can improve public health outcomes by integrating both climate dynamics and the impact on human health into our management of natural water resources.
We need integrated climate and health systems
Traditional disease surveillance systems rely on early detection of illnesses as they occur, not predicting them before they happen. But outbreaks that follow extreme events are already underway before authorities are notified.
The close relationship between climate signals and some waterborne diseases suggest that advances in numerical weather forecasting and climate science present new opportunities for public health officials.
Recent technological advancements, such as real-time predictions of disease outbreaks, highlight great potential for forecasting to be used for human health benefit ahead of extreme weather events.
Collaboration is key
At present, health professionals and climate forecasters generally operate separately from each other, as very distinct professions. This can make it very difficult for researchers, public servants and service providers to work effectively together.
Our experience at the ANU Climate Change Institute has taught us that an important early step to fostering cooperation is helping individuals build relationships.
Read more: We’ve got to stop meeting like this
It’s important to create opportunities for people from different sectors to come together so they can exchange knowledge and make personal connections. Emphasising that health and climate experts have many shared goals can help encourage new cross-sector networks and a sense of a shared professional identity. (And realistically, one of the most important things you can do to promote productive exchanges is feed people well.)
There’s a real opportunity to integrate health and climate knowledge bases. This could be what’s known as a “boundary object”: something that can be meaningfully interpreted by people with different training and backgrounds, which helps to span the “boundary” between these sectors or disciplines.
We stand to gain from integration across climate and health
As our understanding of climate patterns grows, there are more opportunities for the health sector to take advantage of sophisticated modelling and prediction.
This is particularly true if disease surveillance and climate and weather forecasting can be combined to assess health risks ahead of extreme weather events, rather than during or after the fact.
By fostering collaboration and the integration of the health and climate sectors, we can improve our capacity to respond to the health risks posed by climate change.
Authors: Aparna Lal, Research Fellow, Australian National University