Explainer

What is the link between climate change and infectious disease?

A failure to slow global warming is providing many deadly diseases with the opportunity to expand their reach, putting the health of millions of people at risk. Read on to understand how climate change and infectious disease are linked, and what we can do to limit the damage.

​​​​​​​Two medical workers in bright blue uniforms carry a patient on a stretcher down a gravel path in a town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Two medical workers transfer a patient from the cholera treatment unit of Médecins Sans Frontières to the intensive care unit at the general hospital in Masisi, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Alexis Huguet / AFP via Getty Images

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What is the link between climate change and infectious disease?
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Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying.  

Homes are being lost due to unprecedented floods and fires, heat-related illnesses are on the rise and our food systems are increasingly at risk.  

While these extreme events are proving disastrous for humans, they’re providing the perfect environment for many infectious diseases to thrive. 

Many infectious diseases are climate-sensitive. Urbanisation, changes in disease control and human mobility all play roles in the expansion of infectious diseases. Meanwhile, as climates have warmed, more places are now also reaching suitable temperatures for disease transmission.   

The climate acts as an important driver of spatial and seasonal patterns of infections, year-to-year variations in incidence (including epidemics), and longer-term shifts in populations at risk.

What's the risk? 

The March 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that without swift climate action we will see an escalation of infectious diseases. They will spread to new regions (and may decline in some endemic areas). They’ll surge in areas where they were previously under control. And diseases that have never previously infected humans (Disease X) may 'spill over' from animals.

Global heating and increased drought and flooding represent a significant threat to public health, likely leading to the escalation of vector, food and water-borne diseases. The world’s poorest are likely to suffer the most from this escalation and urgent action is needed from the global health community (and beyond) to help us understand these changes, strengthen systems and develop interventions to support communities to adapt to this unprecedented threat.

A photograph of the person, Sally Nicholas.

Sally Nicholas

Head of Health Systems and Environment

Wellcome

Discover more about how climate change is affecting:

Man spraying insecticide in garden to prevent adult mosquitoes spreading dengue virus

Vector-borne diseases

Learn how climate change will impact vector-borne diseases like dengue fever and Zika virus.

A woman in a purple head scarf stands knee-deep in flood water collecting safe drinking water from a metal hand pump.

Waterborne diseases

Learn how the risk of waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid is worsening with climate change.

A group of people farm rows of crops in an aerial photograph.

Foodborne diseases

Learn how the environment plays an important role in the transmission of many foodborne diseases.

What can be done to reduce the risk? 

While climate change may increase diseases in nature, whether this leads to an increase in disease risk for humans depends upon a range of societal, infrastructure and medical factors.

Mitigation 

The most important thing we can do is act now to limit the impacts of climate change. This means reducing the flow of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We can do this in two ways: 

  1. reduce the sources of these gases (for example, the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat or transport) 
  2. preserve and restore the 'sinks' that accumulate and store these gases (such as the oceans, forests, peat and soil) 

As the IPCC noted, we must stabilise greenhouse gas levels "in a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner”

Adaptation 

While mitigation provides global benefits, adaptation often happens on a regional or local level. We need to explore and implement ways to adapt to life in a changing climate.  

  • Strengthen our health systems to reduce the burden of disease. This can include setting up surveillance systems that will pick up early evidence of emerging infections or changes in occurrence as a result of climate change. 
  • Support new research. The intersections of infectious disease and climate science are rarely explored. We must bring these two communities together to catalyse new research and strengthen our capacity to respond to emerging threats. 
  • Invest in the ONE Health approach. To effectively detect, respond to, and prevent outbreaks of disease and food safety problems, epidemiological data and laboratory information should be shared across sectors. Governments, researchers and workers across sectors at the local, national, regional and global levels should implement joint responses to health threats. 
  • Sustainable urban development. The World Bank predicts that more than one billion people are at risk of being driven from their homes for climate-related reasons. As more people move into cities as a result, we must ensure that we build cleaner and greener while ensuring that everyone has access to clean water and sanitation.

We are funding teams to catalyse the development of climate and health research. Explore our current funding calls:

Heat adaptation: evaluating interventions to help manage the health effects of heat

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