Vector-borne diseases celebrate as the globe warms
By Kelly Willis
July 2023 has the dubious distinction of being the planet’s hottest month ever recorded. We can say this with great certainty, thanks to a massive distribution of increasingly sophisticated climate sensors, and a collaborative network of meteorologic and atmospheric monitoring facilities that makes real-time analysis and future projections possible, with incredible precision.
That same network makes it more feasible than ever before for experts to determine where and when climate-sensitive infectious diseases like malaria and dengue are likely to be transmitted, and creates the potential for more cost-effective use of the limited resources available to eliminate these diseases entirely.
Global warming threatens to increase the spread and volatility of many infectious diseases. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and changing rainfall patterns all impact the way vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue are transmitted – complicating global efforts to eliminate these terrible diseases, and putting new and more vulnerable communities at risk. Malaria alone already kills more than 600,000 people every year – most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa – and experts predict that cases could double by 2050, and triple by 2080. Sixty percent of the global population is expected to be at risk of contracting dengue fever by 2080.
Even as global warming threatens to increase the spread and volatility of many infectious diseases, our ability to predict and prevent outbreaks is increasing at an amazing pace. Scientists around the world are using novel sources of climate data, high resolution satellite imagery, and artificial intelligence to create actionable tools for health system decision-makers. These models go far beyond “early warning”, by creating highly precise decision-support tools that equip health systems with the ability to make the best use of the tools they have; dispatching resources where and when they’re most needed to avoid upticks in infection rates, and ultimately eliminating the spread of the disease. We call this approach precision programming: the “just in time” use of limited domestic and development resources, for maximum progress toward disease elimination.
That level of knowledge, predictive capacity, and actionable intelligence is a big part of what constitutes “climate resilience” in vulnerable health systems.
In 2021, the Forecasting Healthy Futures consortium launched the Institute for Health Modeling and Climate Solutions (IMACS): a global center of excellence for climate and disease modeling, dedicated to improving the design, uptake and utilization of advanced early warning systems to create operational efficiencies in disease control and elimination programs worldwide. IMACS convenes a network of 30+ experts in such systems worldwide, and works to advance the discipline and reduce barriers to implementation in countries on the front lines – the “fault lines” – of climate change and global health.
More investment is needed in effective surveillance systems, the use of sophisticated climate data sources, and the application of artificial intelligence to anticipate and avoid the worst effects of climate change on the spread of infectious diseases worldwide. If we invest wisely, those tools and capabilities could result in real progress toward the elimination of the diseases that plague resource-limited countries throughout Africa and elsewhere today, despite the serious challenges presented by global warming.
We are essentially engaged in a race to use data and technology to advance disease elimination, faster than global warming can set us back. Climate-resilient health systems require sophisticated data systems and the local capacity to apply them effectively.
Kelly Willis is the Managing Director of Strategic Initiatives at Malaria No More, responsible for the oversight and growth of the organization’s high impact programs and partnerships around the world. Kelly has more than 20 years of experience working in infectious disease and global health, helping to build permanent capacity in health systems throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, in roles including Senior Vice President at United States Pharmacopeia, Executive Director of Accordia Global Health Foundation, and through her consulting firm Willis Solutions LLC. Kelly’s field experience includes several years living in East Africa, where she helped launch and support the Infectious Diseases Institute at Makerere University, and led a multi-year research program to better understand the impact of medical training programs on standards of care and health outcomes. Prior to that, Kelly spent 5 years in multiple finance and economics management roles at Pfizer, where she also served as a Global Health Fellow in Uganda. She holds a Distinguished Alumni award from Michigan State University, where she earned a BA in French and an MBA in Supply Chain Management.