Concern as health impacts of climate change put on back burner during summit
The recently ended African Climate Summit failed to prioritise health impacts of climate change even as experts decry a sharp increase of climate-related diseases. Prof Samuel Kariuki, the East Africa director for the Drugs and Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), said climate change made it more favourable for neglected diseases to spread, breed in new areas, increase resistance to treatment, disrupt livelihoods and eventually lead to migration. It has also exacerbated existing health inequalities and made it possible for vectors to survive and spread disease. He mentioned that more that 75 per cent of new infectious diseases in Africa are zoonotic. They include Rift Valley Fever, which has spread its roots from central and coastal Kenya as of 2014, affecting only humans, to North Eastern and Eastern counties. These counties include Wajir, Marsabit, Garissa, Kajiado, Kitui and Tana River, which have since 2018 recorded livestock abortions and human deaths. Other climate sensitive diseases include dengue fever, whose cases have increased by 85 per cent from 1999 and 2019 due to rising global temperatures and Leishmaniasis, now occurring in new places like Kajiado because of rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. “Ten years ago, there were very few cases of dengue fever in Kenya, but now we are seeing such cases in the highlands. In the last three months, we reported some cases of Leishmaniasis in Kajiado, where this disease had not been reported before. This is because vectors of those diseases are able to breed in those environments because of climate change,” said Prof Kariuki. He added that there have been cyclic outbreaks of cholera in the country. But there are now cases of cholera imported from a total of 14 African countries. “Traditionally, we associate cholera with flooding, running water and contamination. Now we see cholera during the dry season. What is happening? This bacterium is persisting more in the environment courtesy of antimicrobial resistance. It stays longer in the environment and people pick it more easily than before,” he added. Giving more insights on antimicrobial resistance (AMR), he said that while Covid-19 in 2021 caused the death of nearly 3.5 million people, AMR-led deaths in 2019 were about five million. He explained that communities need to be prepared and made aware of how to protect themselves from coming in touch with points of infections. These include use of vaccines in hotspots, looking for new tools of detection and diagnosis and treatment to avoid spread of disease. The experts believe that a One Health approach will help in tackling emergence of new diseases in the midst of a climate crisis. According to Africa CDC, a One Health concept is one that addresses shared health threats at the human-animal-environment interface for a safer and healthier Africa. Dr Githinji Gitahi of AMREF said this concept is viewing it as the optimal approach to tackle intricate climate-driven health challenges at the junction of humans, animals and ecosystems and pivotal in achieving planetary health. “As we advance the common Africa position on climate and health — exploiting the potential of One Health approach for climate resilient health systems — we recommend climate finance negotiation stream where finance for adaptation and mitigation across sectors should optimise the imperatives of One Health,” he said. “We hope for an enhanced collaboration between the ministries of Health and other relevant sectors such as agriculture, environment water resources and urban planning in the spirit of implementing the One Health approach to address multiple climate-related challenges.” To handle the effects of climate change and health, DNDi has developed treatments for climate sensitive diseases. “In the last 20 years we have developed 12 treatments for six diseases, some new, while others have been repurposed,” said Prof Kariuki. “We have also increased sustainable research, development and manufacturing. We have to continuously do research to develop new tools for detecting disease and surveillance, or new tools that will help in management of disease and prevention,” he added. As a critical measure, Prof Kariuki said there is a need to advocate for innovation for neglected patients in the climate change approach. “We are going to work with those populations that live in marginalised areas like West Pokot, areas deep in the jungle. If you are keeping livestock, how do you use livestock as a means of trade to be able to pay for your health insurance,” he explained.