Mosquito-borne diseases become climate reality in warming Pacific | Health News

Mosquito-Borne Diseases on the Rise in the Pacific Islands due to Climate Change

Experts have warned for years that the warmer and wetter world created by the climate crisis will drive a surge in mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever. Unfortunately, these predictions are now becoming a reality in the Pacific Islands. According to the Pacific Community, its Pacific island members recorded 69 outbreaks of dengue fever, 12 outbreaks of Zika virus, and 15 of Chikungunya virus between 2012 and 2021. These diseases are all transmitted by mosquitoes that thrive in warm, humid conditions.

Malaria and dengue cases are also increasing in the region. Disease surveillance by the World Health Organization shows that in the Solomon Islands, for instance, malaria cases rose by 40 percent between 2015 and 2021. Papua New Guinea saw incidences of malaria rise by 5 percent over the same period, with a 25 percent increase in related deaths.

Climate change is a crucial factor in the emergence of vector-borne diseases. According to Dr. Salanieta Saketa, a senior epidemiologist in the Pacific Community’s public health division in Fiji, these diseases are sensitive to climate change. “This is what we can see in the region; they emerge after disasters, cyclones and when there is a rise in temperatures,” she said. Mosquitoes thrive in warm and humid conditions, and with climate change, such conditions have become more prevalent.

To combat this, the PacMOSSI Project is helping the Pacific islands survey and control mosquito populations, which have expanded as climates have become warmer and wetter. Taking action now is crucial, according to Tom Burkot, a professor at the Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at Australia’s James Cook University in Cairns. Burkot is leading an international partnership between Pacific Island countries and health and research institutions to find new ways of combating these diseases. He warned that if we just maintain the status quo, outbreaks of vector-borne diseases in the Pacific will likely get more frequent and larger in number. To prevent this from happening, we need to invest in new strategies to control the mosquito population and to treat or prevent infections in humans.

Vector-borne diseases are caused when people are infected by parasites or viruses carried by vectors, which are commonly mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects. They are most prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world where the warm climate provides ideal conditions for them to thrive. In PNG, the average temperature hovers around 25C (77 F) all year, and humidity ranges from 70 to 90 percent. Vector-borne diseases are “a significant public health problem in coastal PNG,” said Dr. Moses Laman, deputy director for science at PNG’s Institute of Medical Research in the country’s Eastern Highlands Province.

In the Pacific, malaria is endemic in only three countries, whereas diseases like dengue and Zika can potentially be transmitted in every Pacific Island country. According to James Cook University’s Burkot, “the Aedes vectors of dengue are highly adapted to human environments, so the potential for outbreaks is linked to urban areas, as [they] feed almost exclusively on humans, and their larvae are predominantly found in man-made containers.” Dengue fever has gained ground in densely populated urban areas in recent decades, not only in the Pacific Islands but also in warmer parts of the world. Without an effective vaccine or dedicated treatment, dengue fever is fast becoming a significant worry.

In conclusion, vector-borne diseases pose a significant threat to public health, and their incidence is rising in the Pacific Islands. It is imperative that we take immediate action to combat these diseases, or else we may face more frequent and severe outbreaks in the future. To achieve this, we must invest in new and innovative strategies, including increased surveillance and control measures, public awareness campaigns, and research to develop new vaccines and treatments. By working together and taking proactive measures, we can effectively reduce the burden of vector-borne diseases on our communities and ensure a healthier future for all.