Davos Agenda

Climate change threatens everyone’s health – here’s how technology can help

Image: Kseniia Zaitseva/Unsplash

Alan Dangour
Director, Climate and Health, Wellcome Trust
Felipe Colon-González
Technology Lead, Data for Science and Health Team, Wellcome
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Climate change has the potential to impact everyone’s health. Every degree Celsius the world heats could have a devastating impact on global health.
  • Research finds that climatic hazards, such as warming and rainfall, have exacerbated more than half of known human infectious diseases.
  • We can invest in digital technology to help us track and respond to the rise of climate-sensitive infectious diseases, helping us to protect the health of communities around the world.

In the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that climate change has the potential to severely impact everyone’s health around the world. One of the greatest challenges of our time will be to better understand this growing threat so that we can help protect human health.

The Lancet Countdown report, an annual publication which is supported by Wellcome, found this year that climate change increases the risk of food insecurity, infectious diseases, and heat-related illnesses. It reported that heat-related deaths have increased by two-thirds over the past two decades. The health impacts of extreme heat were found to include exacerbating conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, causing heat stroke, and harming mental health.

Temperatures around the world broke records in 2022. The UK reached 40 degrees Celsius in July and there were new highs in parts of Europe, Pakistan and China. There have been extreme weather events including floods in Pakistan, wildfires in California and drought in the Horn of Africa.

These extreme temperatures have brought what might have once been an abstract or theoretical idea of climate change very close to home and into sharp relief for many people. Every rise in degree Celsius around the world translates into a potentially devastating health outcome.

One example is the affect heat stress can have on the fetuses of women working in extreme temperatures. Research published last month, which looked at 92 farmers in The Gambia, found that exposure of mothers to high heat whilst farming resulted in concerning rises in fetal heart rate, and reduced blood flow to the placenta as temperatures increased. The study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), which was funded by Wellcome, found that for each degree Celsius increase in extreme heat stress, there was a 17% increase in fetal strain.

Our vision is a world where catastrophic climate breakdown is averted in a way that allows human health to flourish. By supporting more research into the impacts of climate change on human health, we can then use the evidence to identify gaps where innovative products and solutions might be needed and advocate for change. As part of this, we will be launching a funding call in February to support research that generates evidence of the effects on health of climate change at a local and national level.

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Tracking the impacts of climate sensitive infectious diseases

Recent evidence suggests that climatic hazards, such as warming and rainfall, have exacerbated more than half of known human infectious diseases.

Warming temperatures are making new environments much more suitable for disease-carrying vectors, such as mosquitoes which can spread malaria, dengue, and Zika; and ticks which can spread Lyme disease. Up to 8.4 billion people could be at risk of dengue and malaria at the end of the century if emissions keep rising at current levels.

Incidences of malaria and dengue in the highlands of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are being reported where they have been previously absent.

We are also now seeing local transmission of dengue in Europe, which would have been unimaginable as recently as 20 years ago.

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    Harnessing digital technology to fight climate-sensitive infectious diseases

    Digital technology has an important role to play in responding to these emerging threats.

    Early warning systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases can inform evidence-based public health decision-making. Improving our ability to predict when and where outbreaks of disease might occur is the best way to protect communities against them, reduce their impact and potentially even prevent the outbreak itself and save lives.

    Digital tools that respond to these emerging threats and allow for more accurate and efficient modelling of infectious diseases could inform local, national, and international policy.

    A report published last February identified the gaps that undermine global climate-sensitive infectious disease preparedness. It found that few modelling tools for these areas exist, and those that did exist focused on vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, with a shortage for respiratory, food-borne, and water-borne diseases. It also highlighted the issue of representation and diverse geographical input, with most current tools created by North American and European institutions, even though the tools are designed for endemic areas mostly concentrated in the tropics and subtropics.

    The report found that capacity building and mentoring will be key in achieving greater representation of communities most impacted by climate-sensitive infectious diseases. Technology alone isn’t enough and will require collaboration with decision-makers on the ground and investment in local infrastructure.

    Wellcome is supporting the development of tools to respond to these emerging threats and allow climate-sensitive modelling to be done more accurately, efficiently, and with greater impact on the communities where it is needed most.

    For example, Dr Rachel Lowe and her team from the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre are working with researchers in Brazil and Peru to use drones to monitor changes in environmental factors that might have implications for the spread of infectious diseases. This includes water storage that might unintentionally create new breeding sites for mosquitoes. The team will deploy drones and weather stations in areas including the Amazon rainforest and growing cities which are undergoing urbanisation. The data will be used to develop artificial intelligence algorithms to inform infectious disease early warning systems.

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    What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

    A changing world

    The effects of climate change are clear to see all around us. But it is within all our power to take urgent steps to prevent it from getting worse and to protect the communities most at risk.

    We want to work towards a healthier and more sustainable world where local communities and national governments alike are fully equipped to tackle combined climate and health emergencies.

    In our climate and health programme at Wellcome, we seek to transform the generation and use of evidence on the effect on health of climate change and identify the solutions that can be implemented on the ground to protect health. As part of this, we support the collection and sharing of data on climate and health to develop practical and affordable solutions.

    Collaboration, partnership, and skill sharing will be crucial in a rapidly changing world. Data and technology experts from all backgrounds can play a vital role in helping to save lives.

    To find out more about Wellcome’s work on climate and health, visit: https://wellcome.org/what-we-do/climate-and-health

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    Davos AgendaClimate and NatureClimate ChangeHealth and Healthcare
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