• Public concern about climate change has risen, but a widespread lack of knowledge about how rising temperatures impact the spread of disease remains.
  • A new survey highlights educational and regional differences in understanding.
  • Greater awareness of the link between the two could help prevent future pandemics.

Nearly half of the respondents from a global survey do not understand the link between climate change and infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

While public concerns about climate change have risen in recent years, there still seems to be a widespread lack of knowledge about how rising global temperatures impact infectious diseases like the coronavirus, a study published in PLOS One showed.

The results also revealed that there was a marked difference in understanding according to educational background and nationality.

Monsoons, mosquitos and malaria

The survival, reproduction, distribution and transmission of a disease are all reliant on certain environmental conditions. Therefore, changes in climate or weather – such as rising global temperatures – may impact infectious diseases by altering their living environment.

Capacity of mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) to transmit dengue fever worldwide from 1950 to 2014
Figures from a Lancet study which concluded that dengue fever cases had increased due to changing climatic conditions.
Image: Statista

Malaria and dengue fever, both of which are transmitted by mosquitoes, are well-studied examples of the link between environmental conditions and infectious diseases. Excessive monsoons have been identified as a major influence on mosquito breeding, with recent analyses showing that malaria epidemic risk rises about five-fold in a year after an El Niño weather event.

A lack of awareness

However, many people have never considered the effects of climate change on the spread of infectious diseases, as the Erasmus Mundus IDOH+ study showed. Almost half (49.8%) of the 458 people surveyed across the world were not aware of any link.

The survey also highlighted notable differences in understanding according to educational background. The percentage of people who have never considered the impact of climate change on infectious diseases rises to 59.2% among those who work in sectors not relating to science, and drops to 38.4% in those with strong knowledge of natural sciences.

Regional differences in attitude were also revealed in the study. Europeans are far less afraid (51.7%) of contracting an infectious disease than their US (71.4%) or Asian (87.7%) counterparts.

Study author Max van Wijk said that the results could be used to develop awareness interventions for the general public – a suggestion which has significant relevance as societies across the world struggle to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Climate change impacts our response to the pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated there is no evidence of a direct link between climate change and the emergence or transmission of COVID-19. However, it adds that almost all recent pandemics originated in wildlife and points to evidence that disease emergence could be partly driven by human activity.

What is more certain, WHO says, is that climate change can indirectly affect responses to the pandemic, by undermining the environmental determinants of health and placing extra stress on health systems.

Measures such as improved surveillance of infectious diseases in wildlife and humans, and greater protection of the natural environment, could help reduce the risk of future outbreaks.