Did the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report oversell the climate-malaria connection?

In light of a recent paper by Gething et al. published in Nature that challenges the notion that malaria will be on the march in a warming world, it might be useful to see whether or not there is a basis for accusing the IPCC for yet another “error”.

You be the judge: Malaria

The spatial distribution, intensity of transmission, and seasonality of malaria is influenced by climate in sub-Saharan Africa; socio-economic development has had only limited impact on curtailing disease distribution (Hay et al., 2002a; Craig et al., 2004).

Rainfall can be a limiting factor for mosquito populations and there is some evidence of reductions in transmission associated with decadal decreases in rainfall. Interannual malaria variability is climate-related in specific ecoepidemiological zones (Julvez et al., 1992; Ndiaye et al., 2001; Singh and Sharma, 2002; Bouma, 2003; Thomson et al., 2005). A systematic review of studies of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and malaria concluded that the impact of El Niño on the risk of malaria epidemics is well established in parts of southern Asia and SouthAmerica (Kovats et al., 2003). Evidence of the predictability of unusually high or low malaria anomalies from both sea-surface temperature (Thomson et al., 2005) and multi-model ensemble seasonal climate forecasts in Botswana (Thomson et al., 2006) supports the practical and routine use of seasonal forecasts for malaria control in southern Africa (DaSilva et al., 2004).

The effects of observed climate change on the geographical distribution of malaria and its transmission intensity in highland regions remains controversial. Analyses of time-series data in some sites in East Africa indicate that malaria incidence has increased in the apparent absence of climate trends (Hay et al., 2002a, b; Shanks et al., 2002). The proposed driving forces behind the malaria resurgence include drug resistance of the malaria parasite and a decrease in vector control activities. However, the validity of this conclusion has been questioned because it may have resulted from inappropriate use of the climatic data (Patz, 2002).Analysis of updated temperature data for these regions has found a significant warming trend since the end of the 1970s, with the magnitude of the change affecting transmission potential (Pascual et al., 2006). In southern Africa, long-term trends for malaria were not significantly associated with climate, although seasonal changes in case numbers were significantly associated with a number of climatic variables (Craig et al., 2004). Drug resistance and HIV infection were associated with long-term malaria trends in the same area (Craig et al., 2004).

A number of further studies have reported associations between interannual variability in temperature and malaria transmission in the African highlands. An analysis of de-trended time-series malaria data in Madagascar indicated that minimum temperature at the start of the transmission season, corresponding to the months when the human–vector contact is greatest, accounts for most of the variability between years (Bouma, 2003). In highland areas of Kenya, malaria admissions have been associated with rainfall and unusually high maximum temperatures 3-4 months previously (Githeko and Ndegwa, 2001). An analysis of malaria morbidity data for the period from the late 1980s until the early 1990s from 50 sites across Ethiopia found that epidemics were associated with high minimum temperatures in the preceding months (Abeku et al., 2003). An analysis of data from seven highland sites in East Africa reported that short-term climate variability played a more important role than long-term trends in initiating malaria epidemics (Zhou et al., 2004, 2005), although the method used to test this hypothesis has been challenged (Hay et al., 2005b).

There is no clear evidence that malaria has been affected by climate change in South America (Benitez et al., 2004) (see Chapter 1) or in continental regions of the Russian Federation (Semenov et al., 2002). The attribution of changes in human diseases to climate change must first take into account the considerable changes in reporting, surveillance, disease control measures, population changes, and other factors such as land use change (Kovats et al., 2001; Rogers and Randolph, 2006).

Despite the known causal links between climate and malaria transmission dynamics, there is still much uncertainty about the potential impact of climate change on malaria at local and global scales (see also Section 8.4.1) because of the paucity of concurrent detailed historical observations of climate and malaria, the complexity of malaria disease dynamics, and the importance of non-climatic factors, including socio-economic development, immunity and drug resistance, in determining infection and infection outcomes. Given the large populations living in highland areas of East Africa, the limitations of the analyses conducted, and the significant health risks of epidemic malaria, further research is warranted.

5 responses to “Did the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report oversell the climate-malaria connection?

  1. Watts’n’co have gone nuts over Joe Romm’s piece about this issue. Absolutely bonkers.

  2. Pingback: Episode 1: show notes — Irregular Climate

  3. A. Semczyszak

    UNEP, Nairobi, 2007. Climate Proofing Africa Key Challenge:
    “This fourth assessment report underlines growing scientific confidence in the climate models not least in the realm of malaria where it is estimated that an additional 80 million people will be at risk.” ???

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