Amsterdam UMC to lead research into climate driven disease

Credit: Niels van der Pas

Amsterdam’s UMC teaching hospital and the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development have been given an EU grant of €6.5 million to find ways of combating the rise of diarrhea caused by the effects of climate change.

Diarrhea kills over 500,000 people a year globally, and is the third largest cause of death in children under five.

“Sudden heavy rainfall can overwhelm sewage systems and viruses, bacteria and parasites can end up in the environment,”  Vanessa Harris, who is heading an international team of scientists, told the AD.  “It’s a global problem, including in rich countries. Even the Netherlands runs the risk of contamination caused by flooding.”

Rising temperatures and longer periods of drought can also drive disease. “Some viruses will be able to survive outside the body for longer,” Harris said. “Climate change is affecting several causes of diarrhea but at the moment we don’t know how we can detect them and which interventions are most effective.”

Part of the European grant money will go on field research in Ghana, Tanzania, Romania and Italy to measure the effect of climate change on water supply, water quality and the impact of diarrhea on people’s lives.

“We want to find out which communities are facing the threat of diarrhea. We must predict and monitor flooding and droughts more accurately and see how water systems can be improved to protect communities at risk,” Harris said.

The important thing about this project is to tear down barriers between disciplines, Harris said, and to bring together not just medical specialists but also climate experts, hydrologists and health economists.

The four locations each have their own characteristics which can provide insights into the risks of diarrhea. Naples’ obsolete water systems combined with the contaminants of nearby agriculture may lead to problems there, for example. In Ghana, frequent flooding is affecting the water supply.

Climate change is threatening to undo the results achieved in a decade of combating diarrhea, Harris said. “Far too many children, sick and elderly are dying of diarrhea in the world,” she said.

According to figures from the RIVM public health institute, some 586 people died from diarrheal diseases in 2022 in the Netherlands. It is currently in 35th place in the list of most frequent causes of death. In 2021, the institute detected a marked rise in infections.

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