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January 10, 2024

International Effort Targets Climate Change’s Effect on Child Diseases

A child in drought-stricken Malawi

UVA Health researchers have joined a new international consortium that will work to understand how climate change could affect dangerous diarrheal diseases, a leading cause of death for children under 5 years old.

Josh Colston, PhD, and James Platts-Mills, MD, will lead UVA Health’s contributions to the new SPRINGS consortium, which is spearheaded by the Amsterdam Institute of Global Health and Development and Amsterdam UMC, a leading medical center.

Consortium researchers fear that climate change threatens the fragile progress made in reducing childhood diarrhea in the past decades. Floods and droughts could have dire effects on the countries and communities most stricken by childhood diarrhea, which contributes to more than a half-million deaths of young children each year, mostly in tropical and lower-income regions of the world.

“There’s been so much progress in reducing the burden of this disease in the past few decades, and now there’s a risk of that all being undone by climate change,” said Colston, an epidemiologist with the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health. “First and foremost, public health decision-makers in the countries and regions affected by this problem need to be empowered with the tools and evidence they need to build health systems that are prepared for the impacts of a changing climate on the populations they serve. That’s what the SPRINGS initiative aims to provide.”

Climate Change and Childhood Diarrhea

Colston and his collaborators will seek to better understand how shifting weather patterns and climate change can affect the spread of rotavirus, Cryptosporidium, Shigella and Campylobacter, four of the major bugs responsible for childhood diarrhea. The scientists will combine pathogen data they have been collecting with climate and meteorological projections made by a collaborating institution. From that, the researchers hope to better understand the factors that determine how diarrhea is spread and make predictions about how various climate scenarios in the future could affect that spread. They also will test intervention strategies for different climate scenarios in collaboration with meteorologists at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and other partners in Europe. The researchers will share the results with stakeholders in the most affected countries as well as other scientists using an online dashboard and other means.

In addition to modeling, the consortium will conduct case studies to assist in efforts to battle diarrhea at the local level. As part of this, Platts-Mills will continue a longstanding collaboration with the Haydom Global Health Research Centre in Haydom, Tanzania. The researchers will conduct a case study that will help the consortium understand the potential effects of climate change on water-borne causes of diarrhea. “Contaminated water is assumed to be a major risk factor for diarrhea in children,” said Platts-Mills, an infectious diseases clinician-scientist in UVA’s Division of Infectious Disease and International Health. “This study will apply molecular diagnostics to understand the relative importance of water-borne transmission for specific causes of diarrhea, which will provide critical data for modeling potential interventions.”

Shaping Smart Policies

The SPRINGS consortium aims to understand how climate change may affect water supplies, the environment and, ultimately, the spread of diarrhea-causing pathogens. “We see that the impact of climate change on disease transmission depends on the constantly changing interaction between climate events, local vulnerabilities and exposure to disease,” said Vanessa Harris, MD, PhD, assistant professor of global health at Amsterdam UMC. “For example, sudden heavy rain can cause sewers to overflow and contaminate water supplies, or increasing temperatures can cause some pathogens to live longer outside the body.”

The consortium aims to identify areas at most risk from climate change, allowing communities and local leaders to develop the best strategies for addressing the evolving problem. “We'll do this by bringing together a broad range of experts – from climate experts and engineers to anthropologists, health economists and public health experts – and then using broad-scale modelling and community-based case studies to describe the consequences of climate change on diarrheal burden and identify which local interventions will be most effective into the future,” Harris said.

"We want to get to the stage where we can predict local and national risks and use this evidence to shape policy. This means understanding where water quality and pathogen surveillance needs to be performed to support communities and governments in prioritizing their limited resources across health and environmental sectors,” Harris said. “Ultimately, the combination of better mapping and more surveillance coupled with targeted interventions should reduce illnesses and deaths.”

SPRINGS Supporting Policy Regulations and Interventions to Negate aggravated Global diarrheal disease due to future climate Shocks  officially started Jan. 1. It is a €6.5 million project that spans five years. The project is funded by the European Commission under the Horizon Europe programme with Grant Agreement No. 101057554.

The SPRINGS consortium consists of Amsterdam UMC, AIGHD, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, UVA, the University of Ghana, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Three o'clock, Aarhus University, the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the University of Naples, the Haydom Lutheran Hospital, AQUATIM, the University of Bucharest and the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.

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