Climate Change May Be Causing Global Cholera Surge: WHO
The Wolrd Health Organization (WHO) on Friday warned countries of a global cholera surge triggered by climate change. Dr. Phillippe Barboza, Team Lead for Cholera and Epidemic Diarrhoeal Diseases, cautioned that “the map is under threat (from cholera) everywhere.” The United Nations flagged reports of cholera infections in at least 30 nations this year. This is a significant increase from the last five years’ average of fewer than 20 countries reporting an infection. The recent surge is the latest instance of climate change undoing serious progress in global efforts in mitigating preventible diseases.
In the last few years cholera-endemic nations reported steady progress over the disease. According to a WHO report from 2018, global cholera cases dropped by 60% that year, with major progress recorded in cholera-endemic nations such as Haiti, Somalia, and the Demographic Republic of Congo. According to Barboza, these efforts have now been undone. “The situation is quite unprecedented, for not only we are seeing more outbreaks, but these outbreaks are larger and more deadly than the ones we have seen in past years.” Barboza attributes this “unprecedented” rise to the usual factors of lack of clean water and sanitation, along with a “very visible impact” of climate change.
Cholera is a virulent infection that causes severe acute watery diarrhea. The disease is caused through ingestion of food or water contaminated by a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae. A person infected with cholera may display symptoms at any point between 12 hours to 5 days of being infected. While treatment for cholera is fairly simple, the disease can be fatal if not treated immediately. More importantly, the disease is closely linked to lack of access to safe drinking water and hygienic sanitation facilities, resulting in poorer countries bearing the burnt of the global cholera caseload.
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This year saw multiple extreme climate events play out around the world. In South Asia alone, there were two deadly series of floods — in northeastern India and Bangladesh during the early summer months of May and June, and in Pakistan a few months later in August and September. The floods in Pakistan — a visible climate change disaster — left a huge load of waterborne diseases in the aftermath. Earlier reporting only sporadic cases of cholera, the country this year reported more than 5,00,000 cases of watery diarrhea. Extreme floods also caused havoc in West and Central Africa, which also reported large numbers of cholera infections this year. Barboza commented, “Most of these larger outbreaks and the fact that they are simultaneously occurring – which makes the situation much more complex – is a direct impact of the increase in adverse climate troubles.”
Barboza indicated that much of these troubles are to continue as we progress into the new year. With meteorologists forecasting the persistence of the La Nina — a climatic phenomenon often associated with floods, cyclones, and prolonged droughts — access to clean water is going to get difficult for people, especially in economically and geographically vulnerable countries. This is disproportionately going to hit countries that are economically disadvantaged. Often, as in the case of Pakistan, these are also going to be countries that are themselves responsible for very little of global emissions that drive up climate change.
Diseases like cholera will continue to breach borders as a result of unequal consumption and emissions fuelling climate events. In such a scenario, it is important for wealthier, more developed countries to be mindful of their consumption as well as their responsibility towards the rest of the world.
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