The WHO warns that the fight against malaria is significantly threatened by the climate crisis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that the climate crisis is a significant danger to the battle against malaria. There is evidence to suggest that extreme weather conditions and increasing temperatures have caused a surge in malaria cases.

Mosquitoes, the carriers of the disease, thrive in warm, damp and humid conditions, which are increasing with global heating.

The director general of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that the evolving climate presents a significant threat to efforts against malaria, especially in susceptible areas. It is crucial to implement sustainable and resilient measures to combat malaria, alongside immediate steps to mitigate the impacts of global warming.

While there is limited information on the lasting effects of the climate crisis, the World Health Organization’s world malaria report, released on Thursday, noted that increasing temperatures have played a role in the spread of malaria in African highlands where it was previously absent. This year’s report includes a section entirely focused on the climate crisis and its connection to malaria.

According to the information, there was a significant rise in the number of cases in Pakistan due to extensive flooding in the previous year. The reported cases increased five times, from 500,000 in 2021 to 2.6 million in 2022. The standing water created a suitable environment for mosquitoes to breed.

Peter Sands, the leader of the Global Fund for the battle against Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, stated: “I believe that climate change is a major factor in the changing landscape of malaria, although we are not yet aware of the full extent and consequences of its impact.”

Sands stated that the climate crisis poses other obstacles to eradicating the disease, such as displacement, destruction of health services, and heightened levels of food insecurity and malnutrition.

According to him, the analysis of potential effects in the world malaria report may actually be understated. It is possible that there could be even more significant outcomes, particularly due to secondary and tertiary factors.

Dr Photini Sinnis, the deputy director of the malaria institute at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg school of public health, said the climate crisis “is going to have an impact”, but that it would be hard to predict.

According to the report, the number of worldwide malaria cases in 2022 is still considerably higher than pre-Covid-19 levels, even though there has been a slight decrease in numbers. In 2022, there were 249 million cases, compared to 233 million in 2019. Additionally, the number of deaths increased from 576,000 in 2019 to 608,000 in the past year.

Each week, approximately 12,000 lives are lost to the disease, with pregnant women and children under five being the most vulnerable. The majority of cases and fatalities occur in Africa.

The report emphasized additional challenges in eliminating malaria, such as the increasing resistance to insecticides and the presence of an invasive mosquito species, Anopheles stephensi. This species has expanded beyond its original Asian and Arabian homes and is now found in Africa.

A female Anopheles stephensi mosquito feeding on a human.

The WHO stated that the species is capable of thriving in urban environments, tolerating high temperatures and being resistant to various insecticides. It has been connected to malaria outbreaks and its expansion, combined with the rapid urbanization, could increase the chances of malaria in African cities.

The report notes that there is a rising concern about resistance to medications, such as artemisinin, which played a crucial role in decreasing the worldwide impact of malaria from 2000 to 2015.

However, there are indications of progress. Sinnis and Sands noted that several strategies and programs have been implemented to combat resistance, including the provision of upgraded bed nets treated with insecticide and the advancement of novel insecticides and antimalarial medications.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended the widespread use of a successful malaria vaccine, R21/Matrix-M, earlier this year. Cameroon received doses of another endorsed vaccine, RTS,S, last week and is one of 12 African countries scheduled to receive doses over the next two years.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the RTS,S vaccine has significantly decreased cases of severe malaria and led to a 13% decrease in deaths among young children in areas where it was given, compared to areas where it was not implemented.

Sands stated that we have a strong arsenal of resources, including vaccines, to combat malaria. However, these tools are not being utilized to their full potential. The world is not allocating enough resources towards addressing malaria, especially in the face of climate change exacerbating the issue.