DENVER, Colo. — There's some groundbreaking new research that's shedding light on how diseases such as hepatitis, pneumonia and malaria can be worsened by climate change. More than half of the known human pathogenic diseases can actually be affected, scientists are finding.
For years, scientists have said climate and health are related. As the co-director of the University of Colorado School of Medicine's climate and health program, Rosemary Rochford says the newest findings can be alarming.
"Slowly over the last, since 2010 or so, you start seeing more and more studies trying to bring this point together and see what's happening with climate and health," Rochford said. "The numbers are very jarring."
She's referring to a new research paper published by the University of Hawaii at Mãnoa.
"I think it's a really important paper raising awareness, it's called what's a systematic review. They pulled in a lot of studies from around the world," Rochford said.
Erik Franklin is one of the faculty researchers for this project.
"We found by looking at some of the predictive global climate change models, that these things would increase in frequency, they would increase in magnitude or strength in the coming years," Franklin said
They took former research about climate hazards such as flooding, heat waves and droughts, and found that greenhouse gas emissions are intensifying them. That, in turn, affects more than half of the hundreds of known infectious diseases.
"Our concerns emerged once we started to see the results. When you talk about over half of the 375 diseases that we identified or could identify, over half of those would have a negative impact from a climate hazard meaning climate change in the future will basically have an increased problem with these diseases," Franklin said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of how our society can be affected by disease.
"It was just sobering. You kind of just have to sit back and grasp the massive health system implications for humans around the globe," Franklin said.
This is why he says prevention is key.
"We really need to attack the problem from a proactive approach which means decreasing and minimizing greenhouse emissions as soon as possible. That's to try and turn the tap off on what's leading to these negative disease outcomes," Franklin said.
"It tells us that we need to pay attention to it and we need to think about what interventions we can do," Rochford said.
While the findings may feel detrimental, Rochford says we need to focus on how scientists can intervene.
"We now have interventions to help prevent that disease so we want to know what diseases can be impacted by climate change but we also want to remember we can also have tools that can help us prevent those diseases," Rochford said.
Until now, research hasn't quantified the total threat of climate change on pathogenic diseases.
"What's novel about this work and what's also kind of scary, as far as our group knows, this is the most comprehensive attempt, to look at all of the, both a list of most of the hazards and all of these diseases," Franklin said.
This paper is the start of a new chapter, truly grasping the relationship between climate and disease.