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How does climate change affect human health in Guatemala?

Fabio Cresto Aleína

We are still in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, with new dangerous variants of the COVID-19 virus that we have yet to fully understand appearing continuously, putting the world’s health systems under constant pressure. However, there are other dangers connected to well-known and studied diseases, whose zones of influence are expanding, affecting new people in new places. Some examples in Central America include, among others, dengue fever, Chikungunya, Zika, Chagas disease, and leishmaniasis. Did you know that these diseases are influenced by climate change? How do changing rain patterns and rising temperatures affect the diffusion of these diseases?

Climate change is affecting and will continue to affect ecosystems and populations around the world, increasing vulnerability to dangers new and old. One of these is clearly connected to human health, as, according to various scientific studies, many environmental factors can influence the transmission vectors of some dangerous diseases. Vectors are, in general, organisms that can transmit disease to other individuals. The majority of vectors are insects. Many vectors, like all living organisms, are adapted to a particular climate; if climate conditions change, the behaviors of these vectors will change too, altering the spread of the diseases that they carry. Data provided by the Ministry of Public Health and Welfare (MSPAS) report that in recent years, an increase in cases of dengue and the appearance of new diseases, like zika and chikungunya, were registered in Guatemala.

Chagas, characteristic of the Americas and endemic in Guatemala, is considered one of the region’s ten most important neglected pathologies, and is tied not only to climate conditions, but also deforestation. The disease affects around seven million people around the world, above all in poor zones of Latin America. It is caused by a parasite that is transmitted to humans primarily by insects (either bedbugs or kissing bugs). Carlota Monroy, a scientist at the University of San Carlos told the BBC in a recent interview about the disease that “[…] as we are destroying forests, these bedbugs are going to try to survive and adapt to a human environment. If we humans provide them adequate conditions and they reproduce, this will lead to transmission of the disease. Generally, people do not realize that environmental destruction is the reason we have bedbugs in our houses.” After Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, she recalls, bedbugs tried, like humans, to survive the disaster, and did so by invading peoples’ homes. What were the consequences? Cases of Chagas. Climate change, and the resulting increase in extreme weather phenomena (like major hurricanes) can also accelerate this problem.

Illustration 1: Changes in detection rates of cases of diseases transmitted by vectors, 2010-2019. Taken from the Third National Report on Climate Change, MARN, 2021.

Unfortunately, one of the main limits to adequately understanding the true risk to human health is the lack of data. MSPAS, according to its own assessors, focuses on cures for hospitalized people. They do not focus on the investigation of new diseases nor spikes in infection rates of known diseases and their causes. Thus, the way in which the health system currently functions in the country and due to the way resources are distributed, prevention is not a high priority. In contrast, the current pandemic and its repercussions are evidence of how prevention has never been more important. This pandemic might not have been foreseen, but we can foresee climate change and its effects. 

On November 25th, Shengzhi Sun published an important study with colleagues from the U.S. and Canada in the journal The BMJ. They describe how days of extreme heat impact ER visits by adults in the U.S. In particular, the scientists responsible for this study showed how extreme weather affects not only seniors, but also adults. Rising temperatures are one of the most certain and obvious effects of climate change, and we can bet that the effects of violent heat waves will be even graver in a country like Guatemala, where the population is especially vulnerable due to high levels of chronic malnutrition. As Carlota Monroy told the BBC in an interview: “the basic problem is that many of our people are malnourished, and when people are malnourished, immunological problems are greater.”

At the same time, other effects of climate change can lead to higher rates of food insecurity and malnutrition. Violent hurricanes, as previously mentioned, and intense periods with scarce rainfall have caused massive economic and environmental losses, and in some cases even death. In particular, Salvatore Pascale and his colleagues published an article in the journal Climate Change on October 15, 2021, discussing how recent droughts in 2015-2019 in the Central American corredor seco, a drought-prone region. Though these droughts are part of natural patterns of climate variation, they were probably exacerbated by human-caused climate change. Nicholas Despky and Diego Pons predict, in their December 2020 study published in Environmental Research Letters, that in the future, the likelihood of these types of droughts will increase substantially, causing potentially enormous health problems for the entire population of Central America, in particular the more than 10 million people who live in the corredor seco.

In Guatemala, institutions like the Guatemalan Red Cross, the Academy, international actors, and INSIVUMEH collaborate with MSPAS to address climate change in the Ministry of Health’s strategic plans. In light of COP26 in Glasgow, Guatemala’s new commitments include concrete objectives surrounding the consideration of climate change in the Ministry of Health’s work, through training, the creation of alliances with other institutions, and the strengthening of research programs. However, simply setting goals is not enough. Only if institutions act rapidly to pursue these goals will we be able to make real progress in securing the health of millions of people who are currently extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.