By Nellie Peyton
BANJUL, Jan 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Infectious diseases are on the rise, food harvests are falling and people are dying from heat waves, but many of the health impacts of climate change remain little investigated - especially in Africa.
Doctors and scientists from across the continent said there is a problematic lack of research when it comes to illnesses and deaths linked to climate change in Africa, and pledged to find answers at a first-of-its-kind meeting in the Gambia.
From premature births to growing antibiotic resistance, many climate-related health impacts have been detected, but scientists do not know exactly why they happen, how widespread they are or how to protect people, researchers said.
Medical officials have called climate change "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century," and Africa is seeing the impacts already, with the effects of rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns now evident.
"There is a clear dearth of evidence and research on (the) impact on the population, which is resulting in poor response mechanisms," said Umberto D'Alessandro, director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit The Gambia.
"This is a new discipline in West Africa," he said.
The MRC Unit, a research centre run by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, hosted the first Planetary Health Conference in Gambia last week and will launch a new research track on climate change and health this year.
Attended by experts in both medicine and environmental science from two dozen African countries, the conference was meant to jump-start partnerships between the two fields.
"This really requires some high-level interdisciplinary research," said Robert Zougmore, a soil scientist studying the impact of climate change on crops in Burkina Faso.
Rising carbon dioxide levels in the air can decrease the nutrient content of crops, but more research is needed to know how big the impacts will be and where, he said.
"In my programme we have been talking about food systems and nutrition, but have not made the link about how it will impact human health," Zougmore told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If we succeed in working with health experts we could tackle this kind of thing."
As climate change brings greater rainfall extremes and warming, parts of the world are becoming more vulnerable to increases in mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
Water-borne diseases such as cholera are also likely to increase with a rise in floods, according to scientists.
One of the lesser-known but more serious potential impacts of warming may be a rise in anti-microbial resistance (AMR), or the growth of "superbugs" that are immune to antivirals or antibiotics.
Saffiatou Darboe, a microbiologist working at the MRC Unit, cited two studies in the United States and Europe that show a strong link between rising temperatures and AMR - but said there is no data on the issue from Africa.
"The impact is going to be felt by us in this part of the world," she said, noting she planned a research project on it.
"There needs to be some serious lab work and analysis to figure this out," she said.
In Gambia, it is not uncommon to hear people say, "It's hot now so people are getting sicker," even if they don't know exactly why, Darboe added.
Gambia has been on track to become the first sub-Saharan African country to eradicate malaria, with the parasite prevalence in the country at just 0.2% in 2017, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) - but climate change may alter that.
"Our gains registered in the fight against malaria could be easily lost," warned Health Minister Ahmadou Lamin Samateh at the conference.
Gambia's environment minister said training young Africans to research climate-related health issues should be a priority, because governments need more information to prepare and adapt.
"What can a sick population do to drive economic and social development?" asked Lamin Dibba, Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Natural Resources.
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton; editing by Laurie Goering; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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