/ 8 November 2023

‘Climate change and health must be high on the African agenda’

South African Power Plants Amid Pollution Clampdown
South Africa is one of the largest air-polluted countries in Africa according to a report by non-profit organisation Greenpeace Africa. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Health and policy experts in Africa believe health must be on the agenda during discussions about climate change. 

Shifts in temperatures and weather patterns caused by human activities have resulted in increased risk of deaths, noncommunicable diseases, the emergence and spread of infectious diseases and health emergencies.

Climate change can provide temperature-sensitive vectors and pathogens with ideal environmental conditions for mutations, optimal development and survival, hence increasing their spread and transmission.

Climate change is undermining the rights of vulnerable and disadvantaged people especially in developing countries, where poor infrastructure results in them being unable to have access to good health care and other social support structures. 

In March, Tanzania’s health ministry reported the first Marburg virus disease outbreak in Bukoba. The ministry reported nine cases. Six people died, including a healthcare worker. The virus that is passed on to people from fruit bats. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said timely intervention by its local office and government efforts helped prevent the disease from spreading.

“From one of the events which happened in Tanzania, just the other day there was the Marburg virus outbreak, and using such a model Marburg disease was controlled,” says Martin Muchangi, director population health and environment at the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref). 

Marburg’s symptoms included fever, headache, fatigue and blood-stained vomit and diarrhoea. Although there are no vaccines or antiviral treatments for Marburg, the outbreak was declared over in June. 

A 2023 report by the WHO shows that 3.6 billion people live in areas highly susceptible to climate change, which directly contributes to humanitarian emergencies from heatwaves, wildfires, floods, tropical storms and hurricanes that are increasing in scale, frequency and intensity.

It further states that from 2030 to 2050, climate change is expected to cause about 250 000 additional deaths a year from water- and vector-borne diseases, as well as mental health issues. 

As the world prepares to gather in Dubai for COP 28, African countries have come together to develop a common position on climate change and health.

The global health community is using the “one health approach” to address issues regarding the environment, animal health, human health and climate change. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), a body of the African Union, has developed a strategy that gives direction to member states on how to implement the one health approach. 

South Africa, Mauritius, Rwanda, Botswana, Mali, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ethiopia are among African countries implementing the one health approach, said the Africa CDC. 

“One salient initiative is the development of early warning systems where communities themselves are collecting data on climatic issues like dying of an animal and reporting that,” says Muchangi. 

Amref is implementing the one health approach in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia by bringing together the ministries of health, livestock and environment, where the health clinicians, environment officials and veterinary officers are able to interpret and make sense of the data so that they can respond accordingly. 

About 60% of communicable diseases are zoonotic — they are transmitted naturally from vertebrate animals to humans or from humans to vertebrate animals. 

Professor Omu Anzala, of the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) Institute of Clinical Research at the University of Nairobi, points out the need to advance primary health of populations by addressing how the entire ecosystem works. KAVI, which initially did HIV clinical trials, has now branched to other infectious diseases such as Covid-19 and the mpox, ebola, dengue, Marburg and Zika viruses and antimicrobial resistant bacteria. 

Climate change is becoming a major driver of infectious diseases because water, sanitation and hygiene is affected by droughts and floods. “We need to understand disease ecology and focus on cross-species transmission,” Anzala says. “There is a need to work with environment officers, the veterinary department and health officials.”

Angelo Kaggwa Katumba, of the international nonprofit AVAC, says decolonisation of the research agenda will help Africa best address climate change and health emergencies.

He says the decolonisation agenda is about centering local priorities. African countries have been challenged to invest in research that focuses on its citizens and their needs. 

Wakio Mbogho is a multimedia journalist based in Kenya.