Cholera and Climate Change

The current deadly outbreak of cholera in Kenya, as well as cholera increases in other African nations, appear to be related to climate change. Miguel Angel Luque, one of the researchers in a study at the Madrid Carlos III Institute of Health, has said that “this is the first time that it has become evident in the sub-Saharan region that the increase in environmental temperature is related to the increase in cholera cases.” The Madrid study analyzed data from three outbreaks that took place in Zambia. Transmitted by drinking or bathing in contaminated water, the drought has meant that many people have few options other than to use germ-infested water.

As the epidemic sweeps through northern Kenya, officials there have called it one of the worst outbreaks in a decade. Kenyan health workers reported some 5000 cases as of early December, with over 120 deaths. The actual number of both infections and deaths may be much higher, though, because of the remoteness of the affected areas. Inhabited largely by nomadic people, they are more likely to spread the disease as they move from place to place. Even a cup used by an infected person can transmit it. Those infected can sicken and die within a day if the infection is not treated, usually with rehydration salts.

Not only drought conditions but also rising sea surface temperatures are linked to cholera outbreaks. Warmer surface temperatures cause the growth of plankton, which in turn supports microorganisms that act as a reservoir for the cholera bacteria. Rita Colwell, a U.S. scientist with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Changes, has cited research indicating that  rising ocean surface temperatures have influenced cholera epidemics in East Africa and in Bangladesh.

Poverty-related conditions together with contaminated water sources have long been associated with cholera outbreaks. Now, climate change appears to be a further factor. Representatives from the nations that attended the Copenhagen climate conference in early December indeed have much to consider in returning to their own countries. In the meantime, the fact that the decade of 2000 to 2009 is the warmest in the modern record, according to the World Meteorological Association, is worth pondering as drought conditions persist in sub-Saharan nations.

George Anderson, S.J.

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