As the earth warms, people all over the world will have to adjust to deal with rising sea levels, droughts, storms, and wildfires. Those living in Africa and South America may also have to prepare for an increase in cases of malaria. A study led by Menno Bouma from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and published in the journal Science provides hard evidence that instances of malaria increase during warm years, and decrease when temperatures decline.

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Malaria is caused by the Plasmodium parasite carried by Anopheles mosquitoes. The LSHTM study found that as temperatures warm, both the vector and parasite flourish, meaning bad news for areas predicted to heat up as a result of climate change. The researchers looked at data from the Debre Zeit area of central Ethiopia and the Antioquia region of western Colombia over the last 20 years. After adjusting for factors such as anti-malarial drugs, mosquito-abatement programs, and changes in rainfall, they determined that infections rose in altitude during hotter years and traveled back down in elevation when the weather cooled off.

Already, malaria infects 220 million people a year, killing 660,000 of them in 2010 alone. The majority of cases can be seen in sub-Saharan Africa and in poor, densely populated communities in developing nations. Some experts suggest that the average number of deaths could be nearly double what is recorded, and the effects of climate change may only compound the problem. Populations living at higher elevations do not have the same level of genetic immunity to the disease, and will likely add to the overall number infected.

It is difficult to completely understand how climate change will affect much of the globe, but researchers suggest that developing nations can start to make preparations for malaria outbreaks. Organizations such as the WHO and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation fund research for malaria vaccines, provide insecticide-treated nets, support infrastructure programs that control the mosquito’s breeding habitat. As malaria spreads, both governments and non-profits will have to intensify their efforts to combat the disease.

+ London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Via the Guardian

Images via Wikicommons users JJ Harrison and USAID