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How technology can help fight climate-sensitive infectious diseases

Climate change is the greatest health challenge of the 21st century, and threatens all aspects of society, says the WHO in its COP24 Special Report. What could digital health technologies do to support the fight against the climate crisis? How could healthcare processes, facilities, medical devices become more sustainable? As it is humanity’s priority to mitigate the worsening as well as the impact of rising temperatures and extreme weather events, we tried to figure out what role digital health could assume here. We found many options – and even more possibilities for future development.

The climate crisis is our third world war

That’s the main argument of Joseph Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and former chief economist of the World Bank on why opponents of green policies, such as the Green New Deal in the US, should not be asking whether we can afford it – as no one asked that during the Second World War, but did what they thought was necessary to do. The problem with the climate catastrophe is that many people don’t feel it immediately on their own skin – but by the time it becomes painfully palpable for millions, we have already lost the battle.

It’s similar to the tale when two frogs jumped in a cooking pot full of cold water. The first one screamed that they’re going to die and jumped out, while the second was completely relaxed thinking they found a nice pond to spend the time in. As the temperature of the water was raised gradually, the frog got accustomed to the change and didn’t realize that he’s being cooked. That’s what happening to humanity – if we don’t take action.

Death Valley cooler than Southern France

So far, we are a bunch of second frogs not noticing – although the signs are everywhere. In May, extremely hot air masses reached the Russian town of Koynas, near the Arctic circle, and the temperature reached 31.2 degrees (88.2 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s “just” 25-30 degrees above the usual. The photo about huskies galloping in melted ice on Greenland went viral in June, while a heatwave hit Europe at that time – resulting in Death Valley being cooler than southern France. Temperatures reached a record-breaking 45.8 degrees (114.6 degrees Fahrenheit). To make the scary extent of global warming more palpable, The New York Times together with the Climate Impact Lab, a group of climate scientists, economists and data analysts from the Rhodium Group, the University of Chicago, Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley, created an interactive map where anyone can see how hotter their hometown has become over the years and what are the predictions for the future.

Those are just a couple of recent examples, but the climate crisis has extremely serious health consequences for entire communities, too. In its COP24 Special Report, the WHO outlines that the direct health impacts include physiological effects of exposure to higher temperatures, increasing incidences of respiratory and cardiovascular disease and injuries and death due to extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, heatwaves, storms, and wildfires. In addition, the changing climate conditions also have indirect effects on health due to ecological changes, such as food and water insecurity, the spread of climate-sensitive infectious diseases, and also to societal responses to climate change, such as population displacement and reduced access to health services. The US Global Change Research Program’s Climate and Health Assessment projects that climate change will cause thousands or tens of thousands of premature deaths a year by the end of this century.

Digital health technologies against mosquito-borne diseases

As outlined before, one of the most significant repercussions of the changing weather conditions is the spread of climate-sensitive infectious diseases – alongside the spread of mosquitos. Unfortunately, rising temperatures are in favor of our least beloved animals, the mosquitos and their little friends spreading around lethal illnesses. For example, The Lancet found that due to changing climatic conditions in countries where dengue fever is endemic, the capacity for one of the main mosquitoes (Aedes aegpyti) to transmit dengue fever has increased globally since 1950 by 9.5 percent. In another example, extreme climatic conditions during one month in several parts of South America in 2015 were followed by the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus to that location the next month.

Digital tools could help take action against mosquito-borne diseases. Nicely drawn electronic maps indicating different pieces of information could help prevent, closely follow or monitor epidemics and/or the spread of diseases. Technology is not only able to visualize data but it already “reasons out” grey spots – and thus helps predict events. For example, American researchers were using data from NASA satellites (such as the Landsat series) to predict malaria outbreaks by identifying areas where the soil moisture creates prime breeding grounds for malaria-positive mosquitos. That could make the taking of public health measures a lot more efficient. As the saying goes: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Releasing sterile specimen into the wild has proved to be an effective method in decreasing insect populations. Numerous countries experiment with the approach with the help of several technologies. In 2018, Australia’s James Cook University, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Alphabet’s Verily life biotech division concluded a similar trial. And how could Google’s parent company be of any help? Experts needed to raise 20 million mosquitos for the project to produce the 3 million male insects required for the sterilization process. Verily’s technology helped them sort out the sexes.

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