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Climate Change and Public Health: Disease and Illness

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 4325 words Published: 23rd Feb 2021

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Part of: Climate Change


 As the world’s climate changes, it will wreak havoc on the human world and the natural world, with small, gradual effects and large, immediate effects, as time and warming progress. The natural world suffers as the human world continues to amplify deadly causes of harmful effects. As humans, we have the capacity of awareness that our planet is changing and the ability to work toward doing something about it. While effects of climate change continue to increase around the world and rising temperatures become more pervasive and detrimental to societies across the globe, the question of how the warming climate will affect public health in the present and future becomes vitally important for global society.

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 Humans are sturdy yet fragile. We are capable but susceptible creatures, able to withstand some harmful effects while falling victim to others. This is especially true regarding infectious diseases and illnesses. Found throughout nature, between fellow humans, or from animals, they affect some but not all encountered when acquired and transported to civilization. Pathogens spread through various means of carrying and transmission and have been behind some of the most devastating losses of life in recorded history. How will climate change affect the spread and transmission of infectious diseases and illnesses?

 Pathogens network by interpersonal contact, a passing proximity, or exposure from nature (Reed, 2015). Diseases and illnesses often travel unbeknownst and unconsidered to humans. We may not pay attention to our surroundings and contract a disease or illness. We wash, vaccinate, and sanitize ourselves constantly. While these measures help, they are not completely pathogen-proof. A changing climate will serve as a catalyst for the spreading of pathogens, increasing of occurrence, and appearance of new diseases and illnesses. One of the key ingredients for the process is weather. Weather patterns affected by climate change are a major medium for infectious diseases and illnesses to spread (Reed, 2015).


 Before climate began changing, in the pre-industrial era of the early 19th century, humans were overall healthier than they are now, though more susceptible to pathogens. More diseases and illnesses existed, but they experienced far less large-scale transmission than they do today. Individuals and communities were isolated by distance and lack of high-speed transportation, and pathogenic spread was mostly limited to conquests, exploration, and trade. Humans spread disease and illness amongst themselves and to others, sometimes carrying a pathogen that would selectively affect a foreign society but not their native population.

In pre-industrial times, the environment and the climate were healthy and essentially pollutant-free, and water levels were normal. Pathogens were carried by contact and proximity from human to human, human to animal, and animal to animal. Two forms of transmitted pathogens are vector-borne and waterborne. Vector-borne pathogens are carried by vectors. These are insects such as bats, fleas, mosquitos, rodents, or ticks, that make contact with humans and animals to bite, burrow, or pierce flesh for consumption of blood. Vector-borne diseases and illnesses then spread through bloodstreams (United, 2016). Waterborne pathogens are carried by water sources. This includes both freshwater and marine water. Bacteria and chemicals thrive in water sources and once these make contact with humans and animals, normally by ingestion, waterborne diseases and illnesses then spread internally (United, 2016). Vectors and water sources in pre-industrial times were more limited to tropical climates or coastal regions.

Nowadays, as the climate has been changing and continues to change, humans are less healthy due to sedentary lifestyles, but less susceptible to pathogens. Though diseases and illnesses can travel with ease through international travel and millions of people coming into contact with millions of others daily, many diseases and illnesses have been eradicated through scientific innovation in the form of immunizations and vaccinations (McMichael, 2013).


 In researching how climate change will affect the spread and transmission of infectious diseases and illnesses, the independent variable is the former and the dependent variable is the latter. How pathogenic expansion and transportation will occur depends on how the climate shifts. Vector-borne and waterborne infectious diseases and illnesses are much more suited to warm and wet climates than dry and cool climates (Ives, 2015). With the world warming, there will be more opportunity for disease and illness to spread and more risk for human populations to contract them. If the world was growing colder, disease and illness would become limited in avenues of transport and shrink in abundance. As global warming increases, diseases and illnesses will increase in a correlational manner. Changing climate patterns and shifting weather conditions will provide more means for disease and illness to spread and transmit (Reed, 2015).

Data collection on the relationship between climate change, its effect on disease and illness, and its subsequent impact on public health is conducted through mixed methods of qualitative and quantitative design. Articles, journals, and studies published by scientists, field experts, and public health professionals are valued sources for research. Interviews and documents are preferred methods of gathering information on the subject matter. Written sources provide informed insight as to how climate will change disease and illness.

Maps and graphs of how disease and illness spread are useful, especially when compared to changing temperatures. Overall, quantitative data will likely require more time to pass before the relationship between climate and disease is truly accurate. The climate will have to experience further change and disease and illness will have to experience increased occurrence of spread and transmission to see fleshed-out quantitative results. For now, predictive and statistical modeling based on historical evidence is valuable, as research can rely on past fluctuations of climate and pathogens to envision how their future relationship will play out.


Public health is just one of many factors being threatened by climate change, but it is a significant factor. Proper health is a basic building block for human growth and survival; without it, we are severely limited from our full potential. Climate change will threaten public health by shifting the planet from what we have adapted to and been used to. Humans will have to make deep changes to society or be forced to continuously adapt to new problems brought about by climate change. We will have to make changes to how we control public health and keep pathogens at bay. Climate change will threaten public health by expanding the frequency of diseases and illnesses internationally. It will do so through rising sea levels, contaminated water sources, and more frequent storms (World, 2012).

How does climate change affect water sources, how does water affect vector-borne and waterborne pathogens, and how will pathogens affect global human populations? It is a chain reaction. Climate change makes changes to water composition and levels. Altered water then changes the distribution and intensity of vector-borne and waterborne pathogens (World, 2018). Stronger pathogens mean greater spread of diseases and illnesses to human society. The impacts of climate change on public health through vector and water sources are significant because our livelihood will be severely threatened if such diseases and illnesses are left unchecked. As humans begin to combat climate change in earnest, we must seriously take our health into account.

Climate change will prove a serious threat to public health through shifting water sources unless it is addressed. Unrestrained pathogens could devastate the human race in an unprecedented manner. Determining how climate change is affecting water will give an idea of how transmission of pathogens will change. Determining how water affects pathogens will give an idea of how a changing climate will spread them. Determining how pathogens affect humans will give an idea of how society can fight back against them as the climate changes.

Literature Review

Determining how climate change will affect the spread and transmission of infectious diseases and illnesses requires examination of relevant literature and research undertaken on the subject. Public health experts and scientists agree that shifting water levels and sources due to the changing climate will majorly contribute to shifting patterns of disease and illness across the world (World, 2012). As glacial ice and polar sheets continue to melt, sea and ocean levels will rise and increasingly flood coastal and mainland regions. Areas that were of dry and moderate climate will be subject to saturation. As vector-borne and waterborne infectious diseases and illnesses exist in wet conditions, areas that were not prone to such pathogens will be exposed to them.

Stronger and more frequent rainfall, and major storm events in the form of hurricanes, monsoons, and tropical storms, will contribute to flooding. Infectious diseases and illnesses are not present in rainfall but develop through contamination or stagnation of water sources. As flooding occurs, infectious diseases and illnesses can spread widely over an area or region with ease (Meason, 2014). Changing weather patterns will play a role in spreading and transmitting infectious diseases and illnesses. Weather factors increasingly altered by climate, such as temperature and wind, will cause disease and illness to travel widely (World, 2012).

As the planet experiences rising temperatures, the abundance of disease and illness will rise as pathogens benefit from warm conditions. As wind patterns grow stronger, pathogens found in certain places will be swept off to others and given opportunity to spread. Geographical distortion is a major underlying cause for infectious diseases and illnesses to spread. As water levels and sources are displaced, wind patterns strengthen and shift, and temperatures rise, pathogens will be transported to and grow in new areas. Public health across the globe will be affected as societies come into contact with infectious diseases and illnesses that they had no prior history with and built no immunity toward (Reed, 2015).


 Climate change as an influence on infectious pathogens will affect humans in many ways. Heightened diseases and illnesses due to a warming climate not only impact public health, but are impacted by human development, travel, and rights (McMichael, 2013). There is a startling rise of vector-borne diseases and illnesses worldwide. Some being tracked are appearances of Chikungunya in the Caribbean; Dengue in Florida, France, Italy, Japan, and Portugal; West Nile Virus in North America and Europe; Malaria in mountainous regions; Lyme Disease in northern Canada; and Japanese Encephalitis in northern India (International, 2018). These emergences are attributed to humidity, rainfall, and temperature increases enhanced by climate change.

 Dengue is a tropical disease spread and transmitted by mosquitos. It has normally been limited to traditionally warm, wet, tropical climates. As the world warms, scientists and health professionals are seeing it spread to non-traditional areas, such as continental Europe and mountainous regions (Mis, 2014). Diseases like Dengue could eventually become common in northern, traditionally cool zones like the United Kingdom, due to the warming climate. Chikungunya is another tropical virus spread and transmitted by mosquitos, dormant for decades but reemerging from Southeast Asia to Africa, to Europe and North America (Meason, 2014). The virus exemplifies how infectious diseases and illnesses become human rights issues. The most disadvantaged populations of the countries in which it appears are first, and most, affected.

Climate change creates and enhances an atmosphere for infectious pathogens to rapidly emerge and spread at an accelerated rate (International, 2018). This is problematic in our modern world, as travel, trade, urbanization, and industrialization are global. With so many people interacting on a daily basis, and with cities constantly growing and industrial developments being made, it truly is no wonder that infectious diseases and illnesses can travel with ease (McMichael, 2013). Add a warmer climate and pathogens will have no limit of their ability to spread.


 It is apparent that the changing climate will create a positive feedback loop for vector-borne and waterborne infectious diseases and illnesses. Climate change is threatening public health by magnifying ideal conditions for pathogens to spread and transmit. Climate factors including temperature and weather influence the distribution, prevalence, and seasonality of vectors and vector-borne pathogens (United, 2016). A shifting climate means shifting geographic and seasonal patterns, and vectors favor warm and wet conditions (Ives, 2015). As warm seasons grow longer, vectors will have more capacity to spread and multiply. As geography is altered with increased precipitation, vectors will travel and expand at greater rates (International, 2018).

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 Through the changing of the climate, humans will be increasingly exposed to water sources that have been altered and displaced. Increased exposure to water also means increased exposure to waterborne contaminants that are harmful. Bacteria, protozoa, and viruses that are present in water and deadly to humans will increase in appearance from rising global temperatures, as ice sources melt and sea and ocean levels rise. Chemicals and toxins found in bodies of water separate from human communities by geographic boundaries of land will make contact with society as flooding occurs at higher frequencies (World, 2012).

Factors including precipitation, storms, and temperature will create favorable conditions for waterborne infectious diseases and illnesses to invade society (Haines, 2006). The warming climate strengthens hurricanes. Stronger hurricanes blanket communities with displaced water that fills with contaminants and toxins. Stronger hurricanes cause flooding and runoff in massive quantities (United, 2016). Through involuntary contact with the storm and its extreme precipitation levels, populations of affected communities then ingest and inhale contaminants and toxins. Severe weather patterns exacerbated by climate change lend to the spreading of infectious pathogens through means of heightened vector activity and increased water contact (International, 2018).


There are a number of implications that can arise from infectious diseases and illnesses being influenced by climate change. Many regions and populations of the world are deeply affected by disease and illness from vector-borne and waterborne pathogens. These are mainly developing, third-world nations without adequate healthcare or a proper public health system (McMichael, 2013). Climate change is already expected to adversely and disproportionately affect lower classes and socioeconomic groups across the world. As such, affected populations are predicted to migrate from their native danger zones and become climate refugees. These populations will bring with them the diseases and illnesses they might have come into contact with and contracted, spreading and transmitting them to healthy populations in safe zones. Migration is a massive potential problem since climate change will spread pathogens.

Climate change might affect how pathogens change and survive. As the world’s climate shifts, vectors will move to new, untouched or uninhabited parts of the planet and adapt to exist in conditions not previously experienced. Longer warm seasons will mean longer active times for vectors (United, 2016). Shifts in season lengths will shift animal migratory patterns, and animals are common carriers of vectors (Ives, 2015). As ecosystems change, living conditions change. Bacteria, protozoa, and viruses have survived millennia by being adaptable (World, 2018).

As water levels change worldwide, waterborne pathogens will gain new avenues into human society. Rising sea and ocean levels are predicted to submerge coastal lands, whether small communities or large cities. Lands that were above sea level will be below it. As such, infectious diseases and illnesses from water sources will cover coastal, low-lying areas and force inhabitants to move inland. Populations of communities and cities submerged by water will be at great risk of contracting a waterborne disease or illness (World, 2018). If they migrate inland to escape the submergence, they will equally risk the health of others who live in drier and higher areas.

Next Steps

There are steps and precautions that society could take to alleviate and mitigate expected impacts from diseases and illnesses enhanced by climate change. While perhaps not all are realistic and some likely easier said than done, all are ideal. Immunizations and vaccinations could be developed for emerging and rising pathogens. There exist no vaccines for Chikungunya, Lyme Disease, Malaria, at present (Meason, 2014). Potential vaccines for Dengue and West Nile Virus are in clinical trial stages (Mis, 2014). There is an effective vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis, and vaccines exist for various other infectious vector-borne and waterborne pathogens. Still, there are more unvaccinated and undocumented pathogens than there are vaccinated and documented.

To combat vector-borne infectious diseases and illnesses, society could further study how pathogens and associated vectors adapt and change to environmental surroundings (Ives, 2015). Potentiality and likelihood of carriers and transmission methods could also be studied. How vectors affect ecosystems and how demographics and behaviors affect vectors are relevant topics that would benefit from deeper study by scientists, field experts, and public health professionals.

To combat waterborne infectious diseases and illnesses, society could further develop and implement safeguards related to environmental interaction, public health, and water resources. Such safeguards would ideally reduce human contact and exposure to pathogens found in water in the natural world (Reed, 2015). Safeguards might include beach closures, coastal supervision, drinking water treatment, public advisories, and water quality monitoring (United, 2016).

Though it may not be favorable or preferable from an international diplomatic and relational perspective, nations can perform public health surveillance (Lindgren, 2012). Countries with little to no current evidence of infectious pathogens could have the option to restrict travel between their own countries and other countries with documented risk. For better or worse, this would limit the interactions of individuals between at-risk and risk-free nations.

The Future

 As with climate change itself, the future of public health depends on what we as humans decide to do about it. Whether we act or not will majorly determine how our world is affected by such factors as global warming and increasing pathogens. If society gets serious in fighting against climate change, then fighting against the spread of vector-borne and waterborne diseases and illnesses will certainly follow. If society remains divided on tackling climate change, such diseases and illnesses will likely have leeway to spread and transmit. Humans must make the right decision to combat climate change and address its causes with solutions. At the same time, we must consider our health and hygiene as key points. Infectious diseases and illnesses exacerbated by climate change will have the capacity to damage public health and hygiene and destroy our very safety and security if left unchecked and even ignored.

 Without our health, we have nothing. Therefore, we must make our health a top priority in the ongoing conflicts of climate change and global warming. The changing climate will unquestionably threaten humans and our health in more ways than one, beyond increasing the spread of infectious pathogens. Armed conflicts, food shortages, rising temperatures, and stronger storms are just a few of the predicted effects of climate change. Humans will require proper health and wellness in order to address these massive present and future concerns. Without proper health and wellness, we cannot address such concerns and indeed, may as well be extinct before they become full threats regardless. Therefore, to combat climate change we must remain healthy, and to do so we must address how climate change will affect infectious vector-borne and waterborne diseases and illnesses. Through study, experimentation, and application, society can collaboratively work toward a common goal of pathogen control and eradication. If so, our public health system will be secure, and society can work together against climate change. If not, it will be one of the first victims of climate change.


Climate change will majorly affect the spread and transmission of infectious vector-borne and waterborne diseases and illnesses in the near and distant future. While not immediately a serious global threat, various cases and indicators are consistently arising that with the changing climate, pathogens are changing simultaneously. When discussing climate change and global warming, diseases and illnesses must have equal consideration to issues of rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns. Of course, these are vitally important concerns. They contribute to one another and to the enhanced spread and transmission of infectious pathogens as well. Scientists, field experts, and public health professionals alike are aware of the severe threat posed by infectious pathogens, but is the public as aware?

Through climate change, pathogens will gain the capacity for accelerated multiplication, rapid emergence, and widespread outbreak to areas and communities not previously known, and at unprecedented rates. If left unchecked, untold numbers of vector-borne and waterborne diseases and illnesses will run rampant and cause devastation to human populations worldwide (Reed, 2015). Society must learn more about pathogens that are arising or reemerging. We must give serious focus and thought to diseases and illnesses that thrive in wet, warm, and humid conditions, that we currently do not have immunizations and vaccinations developed for.

Climate change lends itself to relationships; causes and effects, problems and solutions, awareness and skepticism. It presents a major problem for the entire human race in years and decades to come. We have the ability to act on it, but we must act quickly and in many ways. In acting on it, we cannot afford to ignore the danger of expanding infectious diseases and illnesses. Humans have known for millennia that climate affects disease and illness, but humans have also known for centuries that the climate itself is warming (World, 2018). It should then be apparent that with a changing climate, disease and illness will equally change, and something must be done.


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Climate change describes large changes in global or local weather patterns and global warming generally considered to be largely caused by an international increase in the use of fossil fuels from the mid-20th century onwards.

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