Insights: How Climate Change Affects Health In Africa

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Africa's Unique Vulnerability to Climate Change's Effects. As per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the adverse health impacts of climate change are already keenly felt by tens of millions of individuals in Africa. These impacts manifest in heat stress, extreme weather events, and increased transmission of infectious diseases.
However, conducting research on the continent is significantly impeded by challenges such as limited funding and restricted access to data.
From the 12th to the 15th of June, a diverse array of stakeholders, including climate scientists, health researchers, policymakers, and humanitarian workers, convened at the Chapman Conference on Climate and Health for Africa held at the headquarters of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC.
With representatives from 24 countries, the conference attracted more than 120 participants who presented various topics. These included discussions on the effects of extreme heat on maternal health, the climate-related factors influencing malaria, local perceptions of climate change, and the regional “down-scaling” of climate models.
AGU's Chapman Conference on Climate and Health for Africa
AGU's Chapman Conference on Climate and Health for Africa

Climate Change and its Impact on Health: An Overview

During the initial day of the conference, participants were presented with a variety of insights on how climate change affects human health.
In one of the opening plenary sessions, Dr Rick Spinrad, Administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), emphasized that the consequences of climate change are significantly impacting society in terms of economic, social, and health-related aspects. He referenced data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which identified 1,839 weather, climate, or water-related disasters affecting Africa between 1970 and 2021. These catastrophic events resulted in a total of 733,585 fatalities and caused economic losses of $43 billion.
In a pre-recorded video address, Prof. Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO, highlighted the "Early Warnings for All" initiative. This initiative aims to expand early-warning systems to currently underserved regions in 30 countries, with the objective of covering 100 countries by the end of 2027.
Dr Chris Lennard, a climatologist from the University of Cape Town, underscored that the risk associated with climate change is influenced by multiple factors, including vulnerability, exposure, hazard, and response. He pointed out that Africa is home to the world's most vulnerable communities when it comes to climate change.
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Infectious Diseases and Climate Change

Dr Susan Rumisha, a senior research officer with the Malaria Atlas Project and a biostatistician, explained that various climatic factors such as temperature, rainfall, and humidity play a significant role in the transmission and distribution of vector-borne diseases like malaria. The importance of these factors varies from one location to another. For instance, a study conducted by Dr Asher Siebert from Columbia University's International Research Institute and his colleagues, focusing on the seasonality and geography of malaria in Ethiopia, found that malaria risk was influenced by rainfall and humidity in lowland areas, while temperature played a crucial role in highland areas.
Rumisha emphasized that climate-informed health forecasting can extend beyond prediction and help prioritize action areas and develop proactive strategies to manage disease outbreaks.
Dr Madina Doumbia from the University Peleforo Gon Coulibaly in Côte d'Ivoire noted the existing research establishing links between climate and malaria but highlighted the limited studies in Côte d'Ivoire assessing these relationships. She presented her work, indicating that the number of rainfall events in a year showed a stronger correlation with malaria incidence than the overall amount of rainfall. Doumbia also shared model results projecting increased malaria incidence in Côte d'Ivoire for the years 2030, 2050, and 2080.
Due to inadequate systematic surveillance of disease vectors, some researchers are complementing the available information with models. Dr Ernest Asare from the Yale School of Public Health showcased the VECTRI model's potential to predict malaria epidemics. The model accurately predicted the onset, peak timing, and duration of malaria in seasonal areas, although it didn't precisely estimate malaria prevalence levels. However, when the model was recalibrated using a high-resolution surface hydrology map, it significantly improved its ability to simulate mosquito abundance.
The risks of infectious diseases related to climate change extend beyond vector-borne illnesses. Dr Sheyla Rodrigues Cassy from Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique highlighted that diarrheal diseases are a major cause of child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. Cassy examined the factors associated with diarrheal disease in children under five years old and identified a correlation between increased incidences of diarrheal disease and higher temperatures and rainfall. She cautioned that climate change poses a threat to the progress made by countries in reducing child mortality rates.
Dr Sokhna Thiam from the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya, added that water-borne enteric diseases represent one of the primary health impacts expected from climate change.
Poster hall at AGU's Chapman Conference on Climate and Health for Africa
Poster hall at AGU's Chapman Conference on Climate and Health for Africa

Heat-Related Illnesses and Vulnerabilities

Dr Wassila Thiaw, a meteorologist from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, described heat-related illness as a "low-hanging fruit" in early-warning systems. She highlighted the importance of temperature and humidity in relation to health and the ability to predict and provide forecasts to governments, organizations, and individuals.
Prof. Kris Ebi from the University of Washington discussed heatwaves and early action plans. She pointed out the 2021 "heat dome" event in the Pacific Northwest, which resulted in approximately 800 excess deaths and was deemed a rare occurrence with a probability of 1-in-10,000 years. Ebi emphasized that every heat-related death is preventable.
Dr Kiswendsida Guigma, a climate scientist with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, noted the lack of interest in extreme heat in West Africa and the Sahel, both in terms of research, risk management, and public perception, despite these regions being among the hottest places on Earth. Heatwaves are often not considered disasters in many African locations, especially when compared to drought.
Dr Bethwel Mutai from the University of Nairobi and a consultant meteorologist for Somalia discussed the sensitivities of different localities to temperature extremes, which vary due to differences in local climate, human behaviour, and access to air conditioning. He emphasized the importance of local adaptive measures, which are often intelligent but currently not adequately modelled in risk assessments.
Dr Lisa van Aardenne, the chief scientist of the University of Cape Town's climate system analysis group, highlighted the use and limitations of thermal stress indices. She expressed concern that these indices, developed from a European perspective, do not align with the reality on the ground in Africa and may not be suitable for the continent.
The effects of heat stress on pregnant women were examined by researchers from the Climate, Heat, and Maternal and Neonatal Health in Africa (CHAMNHA) consortium. Dr Adelaide Lusambili from Africa International University in Nairobi discussed the relationship between heat exposure during pregnancy and increased mortality in newborn children. She focused on studying behavioural changes and interventions to improve maternal health outcomes in Kilifi, Kenya, in close collaboration with the local community.
Dr Sari Kovats from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine presented a meta-analysis of 170 studies exploring the risk factors of heat for pregnant women. The analysis revealed strong effects of heatwaves on pre-term birth, although some studies indicated effects in opposite directions. However, due to the rarity of these outcomes, there is limited statistical power when analyzing such data.
Prof. Mary Hayden from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs emphasized that during heatwaves, systemic vulnerabilities are magnified, exposing the fragility of safety nets. She stressed the importance of working with and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable populations to protect everyone from heat-related risks.
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Other Health Impacts

While infectious diseases and heat-related illnesses were the primary focus of the conference, several speakers shed light on other health aspects.
Dr Isaac Akinwumi from Covenant University discussed the wide-ranging impacts of coastal erosion and flooding in Lagos, Nigeria, a city projected to become the world's most populous by 2100. Drinking-water contamination and injuries were highlighted as major concerns during flooding events. In the aftermath of floods in Lagos in 2017, 50% of hospitalizations were attributed to water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Additionally, flooding can lead to building collapses, render hospitals unusable or inaccessible, and contribute to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, primarily due to the loss of livelihoods that people face. Addressing these issues requires comprehensive approaches that go beyond coastal defences, necessitating attention to housing, waste management, and water security.
Advancements in nutrition and climate research were also discussed during the conference. Aishwarya Venkat, a PhD student at Tufts University, presented research on seasonal patterns of acute malnutrition in children under five years old in the Northern African highlands. The study found stunting, an indicator of chronic malnutrition, in 22% of the children, and wasting, an indicator of acute malnutrition associated with short-term mortality, in 7% of children. However, Venkat cautioned that surveys of malnutrition are not designed to capture sub-seasonal variations, often relying on limited data points throughout the year.
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Advancing Early-Warning Systems

A significant focus of the conference revolved around the development of early-warning systems to better address climate-related health risks in Africa.
Sarah Charles from the US Agency for International Development's Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance highlighted FEWS NET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network) during the opening session. FEWS NET, a collaboration between USAID and the US State Department since 1985, forecasts food insecurity in 30 countries, enabling the mobilization of humanitarian aid and other responses several months in advance. FEWS NET integrates various data sources, including climate, agriculture, livelihoods, nutrition, conflict, floods, hazards, markets, and infectious diseases. Charles emphasized that the "last mile" is often the weakest link in the early-warning system, referring to the challenge of ensuring that critical information reaches the individuals who need it the most, particularly vulnerable populations.
Dr Adelaide Lusumbali from the CHAMNHA consortium highlighted the language barrier as a barrier to accessing weather information, with many people not seeking it out due to it being available only in English. Her team tries to utilize trusted institutions like houses of worship to disseminate weather-related information.
Prof. Kacey Ernst, an infectious disease epidemiologist from the University of Arizona, discussed the need to improve early-warning systems that are often fragmented, with academia, governments, and the public contributing to separate components of the system. She advocated for an integrated approach involving government, academia, and community engagement. For instance, researchers could engage with the community to gather additional data and enhance their understanding of how the disease system interacts with weather and climate.
However, Guigma emphasized during the conference that early-warning systems alone are insufficient. It is crucial for responders to be able to effectively prevent the impacts of disasters. He noted a "critical lack of understanding" regarding the direct consequences of heatwaves, including their effects on food security, power supplies, water access, and human health.
Poster hall at AGU's Chapman Conference on Climate and Health for Africa
Poster hall at AGU's Chapman Conference on Climate and Health for Africa

Successful Cases of Early-Warning Systems

During the conference, several successful cases of early-warning systems were presented, demonstrating the progress being made in this field.
Dr Ousmane Ndiaye, the director of Senegal's national meteorological service (ANACIM), and Papa Ngor Ndiaye, head of ANACIM's weather forecasts and risk reductions service, shared details of a pilot project called the "heat-health early warning system." ANACIM releases a heat-health bulletin every week from March to June, utilizing a heat early-warning system product from NOAA along with health risk maps for the country. The bulletin is disseminated through various channels, including text messages, voice messages, radio, television, and the Internet. The project has been in operation since 2020 and will undergo evaluation at the end of this year.
Haingotiana Rakoto Ramambason, the climate and health manager from Madagascar's Ministry of Public Health, discussed the country's health and climate bulletin. This bulletin integrates meteorological and health data to forecast six climate-sensitive diseases. The information is disseminated to the general public via mobile phones, providing projections of disease increase and preventive measures individuals can take.
Dr Josh Talib from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology collaborated with the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development on a project to create sub-seasonal forecasts of meningitis risk. By utilizing sub-seasonal atmospheric forecasts from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, Talib and his team developed hazard maps that identified favourable conditions for meningitis, such as warm, dry, and dusty conditions. Talib highlighted that using these sub-seasonal forecasts could have a transformative impact on early action. For example, the meningitis forecasts could be used to target vaccination campaigns effectively. However, quantifying the on-ground impact remains challenging.
These successful cases demonstrate the potential of early-warning systems in effectively mitigating climate-related health risks and enabling proactive responses.
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Challenges Persist

One significant challenge emphasized by conference participants was the limited access to resources, encompassing funding, personnel, data access, and institutional support. Ernst highlighted during the conference that despite having top scientific knowledge, these issues cannot be solved without adequate resources. Rumisha also mentioned the lack of sufficient funding in both health and climate sectors, emphasizing the importance of allocating resources effectively to establish equitable climate-informed health systems.
The shortage of ground-truthed climate data across much of Africa poses a challenge for forecasters. Prof. Kerry Cook from the University of Texas, Austin, noted that the observing system is not always as long-term or dense as desired, which affects the accuracy of health indicator projections relying on precise climate data. Van Aardenne from the University of Cape Town added that working with climate data is often challenging due to discrepancies in scale and validity.
Van Aardenne also highlighted the unique challenges associated with health data. It is rarely collected at high temporal resolution, lacks standardization and digitization, and raises ethical concerns regarding data sharing.
Thiaw acknowledged the significant progress made in forecasting ability but stressed that the gap lies in vulnerability data, particularly the social aspect of early-warning systems. Some of this data has not been collected, and even where available, it may be poorly organized or inaccessible.
Lennard showcased down-scaled climate models over Cape Town, emphasizing that Africa lacks the necessary computational facilities to make these models a reality. As a result, regional contexts are often overlooked, and adaptive capacity is diminished. Additionally, many places lack the bandwidth to download all of the model output data. He mentioned the Coordinated Regional Downscaling Experiment (CORDEX), which aims to address some of these limitations by running simulations and providing cloud-based access to researchers.
Addressing local contexts and needs emerged as another challenge. Ernst emphasized the importance of applying a gendered lens to early-warning systems, centring the most vulnerable individuals in the conversation. Building trust with community leaders, who can effectively disseminate information within their communities, is also crucial for successful systems. Lusumbali from the CHAMNHA consortium underscored the need for co-designing studies with communities to understand their specific needs and priorities.
The siloing of research and funding between climate and health sectors was identified as a gap. Ndiaye noted the distinct agendas and definitions within these sectors, highlighting the importance of common understanding and thresholds for effective collaboration.
Thiaw expressed hope that the conference would result in strong recommendations on advancing climate-based health early-warning systems, including implementation and sustainability, even through pilot projects, with the ultimate goal of expansion.
  • winnie nguru

    47 w

    I wish African leaders would take seriously matters climate change . We would see a huge change, in place of lifting logging bans we would see more trees being planted and efforts to drive renewable energy

    • Sarah Chabane

      48 w

      Very insightful, I wonder what could be done for African countries to collaborate on these issues

      • Professor Aniebiet Inyang Ntui

        47 w

        @sarah_chabane In order to address the health impacts of climate change, African countries need to collaborate on a number of fronts. This includes: * Sharing data and information. African countries need to share data and information on the health impacts of climate change so that they can better understand the risks and develop effective interventions. This can be done through regional networks and databases, as well as through international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). * Strengthening health systems. African countries need to strengthen their health systems so that they can better respond to the health impacts of climate change. This includes investing in infrastructure, training health workers, and developing early warning systems. African countries can also work together to pool resources and share expertise. * Promoting adaptation measures. African countries need to promote adaptation measures to help people cope with the effects of climate change. This includes measures such as building seawalls to protect coastal communities from flooding, developing drought-resistant crops, and providing mosquito nets to prevent malaria. African countries can also work together to share best practices and develop new adaptation technologies.

      • mercy nduta

        48 w

        It is impossible to deny that the continent is facing multiple challenges.

        Welcome, let's solve the climate crisis together
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