Climate Change and Vector-Borne Disease in Kiribati

Issue 11 Volume 1

In February 2016, I went on a New Colombo Plan-sponsored climate change research trip to Kiribati, a nation of low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean. The islands of Kiribati are on the equator halfway between Australia and Hawaii. One of the most important things that I learnt was how being sustainable is not that difficult at all, and that the people of Kiribati are absolute professionals at living in harmony with their environment. We travelled to Kiribati to research the social, economic and environmental effects of climate change. However, this trip also taught us much about ourselves and the society that we live in, Australia. It was an opportunity to see how those who contribute nothing to global pollution are suffering from the effects of climate change.

There is a large focus in the international community on the environmental implications of climate change. Whilst this is highly significant, the impact of climate change on the health of local communities also needs to be brought to attention. When I think of this impact on local people, Kiribati is the first place that comes to mind. Climate change is responsible for an array of health issues, primarily the rise in communicable diseases as a result of the climate change-induced El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) effect [1]. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are particularly relevant. Increase in average global temperatures due to raised levels of greenhouse gases essentially accommodate these epidemics [2]. Without firstly responding to the health issues that these populations face as a result of climate change, many of the other issues cannot be addressed. In Kiribati, it is crucial to take measures to avoid future health consequences such as communicable diseases, as these people are so susceptible to the effects of climate change.
The people of Kiribati are said to be the most vulnerable to the implications of climate change because of the close proximity of the inhabitants to the coastal regions of their islands. The ENSO effect is characterised by irregular warming of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, and is responsible for raising average temperatures and inducing higher rainfall in the Asia Pacific region. Kiribati itself is only two metres above sea level, and so faces challenges in this domain. This is a very significant issue for cooler regions where there is limited experience or resistance to vector-borne infectious diseases [3].

Vector-borne diseases have many factors at play, such as host resistance, the environment, urbanisation and the pathogens themselves. The severity and prevalence of vector-borne diseases depends heavily on the climate, and thus directly correlates with the ENSO climate cycles. Temperature, rainfall and humidity are especially important concerns for vector-borne diseases [4]. According to the ‘The Sting of Climate Change’ report, ‘warmer conditions allow the mosquitoes and the malaria parasite itself to develop and grow more quickly, while wetter conditions let mosquitoes live longer and breed more prolifically’ [5]. There is an overall increase in the potential for disease transmission due to the change in the ecology of vectors. This is characterised by quicker mosquito breeding cycle (thus, higher concentrations), increased biting rates, and shortened pathogen incubation periods [6]. If rainfall is excessive, pooled water can form, which creates breeding sites for mosquito larvae. There are many factors that operate in these scenarios, and so there is no one direct link between climate and mosquito populations.

For both dengue and malaria, some of the most effective control measures to reduce the burden are long-lasting insecticidal bed-nets, indoor residual spraying with insecticides, seasonal malaria chemo-prevention, intermittent preventive treatment for infants and during pregnancy, prompt diagnostic testing, and treatment of confirmed cases with effective anti-malarial medicines [7]. These measures have dramatically lowered malaria disease burden in many Pacific Islander settings over the years. Thus, prevention is limited to vector-control measures, which are very difficult to monitor.

Visiting Kiribati gave me insight into the reality of climate change and its current impacts on health. It is clear that there is a distinct connection between climate change and vector-borne diseases. This poses particular challenges for developing nations where consequences of climate change are most pronounced. My experiences in Kiribati showed us raw, personal stories, and we strongly believe it is imperative to take action immediately.




Conflict of Interest

None declared




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