India is a country that has been grappling with a plethora of public health challenges, ranging from the high burden of communicable diseases to the rising incidence of non-communicable diseases. With the onset of climate change, experts warn that India may soon have to confront yet another public health challenge – the emergence and spread of new infectious diseases and viruses.
According to a recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, changing climatic conditions, particularly temperature and moisture variations following events such as extreme rainfall in some places and drought in others, will lead to a surge in the spread of vector-borne and infectious diseases across India.
Vector-borne diseases such as dengue, malaria, chikungunya, and Zika are already a major public health concern in India, affecting millions of people every year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the problem, as warmer temperatures and increased rainfall create ideal conditions for the proliferation of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
“Climate change is increasing the breeding cycle of mosquitoes and other vectors, leading to a surge in vector-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, and Zika,” says Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, Director of the Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar. “We are already seeing an increase in the incidence of these diseases, and this trend is likely to continue in the coming years.”
In addition to vector-borne diseases, climate change is also expected to increase the risk of emerging infectious diseases. “As temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, we may see the emergence of new infectious diseases that were previously unknown in India,” says Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, Director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy.
One example of an emerging infectious disease is Nipah virus, which was first identified in Malaysia in 1998 and has since spread to other parts of Southeast Asia. The virus is carried by fruit bats and can cause severe respiratory illness and encephalitis in humans, with a mortality rate of up to 75%.
In May 2018, an outbreak of Nipah virus occurred in the southern Indian state of Kerala, claiming 17 lives. The outbreak was traced to fruit bats that had contaminated date palm sap, which is commonly consumed in the region. The outbreak highlighted the potential for emerging infectious diseases to cause significant morbidity and mortality in India.
“Emerging infectious diseases such as Nipah virus are a growing concern in India, and climate change is expected to increase the risk of such diseases emerging in the future,” says Dr. Laxminarayan.
To address the threat posed by climate change to public health, experts emphasize the need for a multi-sectoral approach that brings together stakeholders from various sectors such as health, environment, agriculture, and urban planning.
“Climate change is a complex problem that requires a multi-sectoral approach,” says Dr. Mavalankar. “We need to work together to mitigate the effects of climate change on public health, through measures such as improving mosquito control, ensuring access to safe water and sanitation, and developing early warning systems for emerging infectious diseases.”
In addition to these measures, experts also stress the importance of raising awareness among the public about the risks posed by climate change to public health.
“We need to educate the public about the risks posed by climate change to public health, and empower them to take action to protect themselves and their communities,” says Dr. Laxminarayan. “By working together, we can mitigate the effects of climate change on public health and ensure a healthy and sustainable future for India.”