El Niño Poses a Major Health Risk

The El Niño phenomenon began in June this year. It will last at least until September and maybe slightly longer. Its effects on human health are sufficiently significant that the World Health Organization has drawn up a report about it.

As a reminder, El Niño is a climate phenomenon occurring in the Pacific Ocean that causes extreme heat and rainfall above normal levels or, conversely, periods of significant aridity in countries around the Equator. The phenomenon is exacerbated by global warming.

The health consequences for are determined by the meteorologic changes it brings, and include the following:

  • Flooding and drought compromise food security.

  • Flooding, drought, and torrential rain (including cyclones) can directly threaten lives and cause displacement of human populations, promote epidemic outbreaks of vector-borne diseases, and damage healthcare facilities.

  • The rise in temperature can cause infectious disease vectors to spread, even reaching regions that are usually unaffected (for example, Europe).

  • It can also lead to heat waves that compromise the health of vulnerable individuals, cause fires, contribute to poor air quality, and so on.

All of these changes increase the vulnerability of populations that already are experiencing a humanitarian crisis. The main resultant diseases and conditions are the following:

  • Malnutrition.

  • Cholera and other diarrheal diseases, especially in areas of drought, through contamination of scarce water supplies without the necessary hygiene measures.

  • Typhoid fever, shigellosis, hepatitis A and E, leptospirosis.

  • Malaria: The epidemiology of this disease is complex. Even small changes in the climate can cause disease outbreaks after rises in air temperature and humidity, affecting parasites and the spread of anopheles, widening the areas in which anopheles are usually found.

  • Arboviral diseases: These diseases may affect European countries, in which Aedes mosquitoes are increasingly found in the warmer months. Dengue fever is currently found in 129 countries. The link between El Niño and the transmission of the chikungunya virus is well established. However, there are few data on the link between El Niño and transmission of the Zika virus.

  • Diseases caused by hantaviruses. These are transmitted via rodents and spread during periods of heavy rain by bites or contact with their urine, feces, or saliva.

  • Measles and meningitis take hold where conditions make vaccination difficult and when there are problems with displacement and overpopulation.

  • Poisoning with biotoxins produced by microorganisms that thrive in hot and humid conditions. As a result, due to ingestion of marine toxins, ciguatera fish poisoning has become a large problem in the Caribbean and Pacific islands.

  • Respiratory diseases, caused or exacerbated by deteriorating air quality (smoke from fires, extreme heat, etc), as well as thermal shock. These conditions mainly affect the elderly, infants, people working outside, and those suffering from chronic conditions.

  • Wounds caused by bad weather.

  • Gender-based violence, exacerbated by reduced livelihoods and transactional sex.

  • Exacerbation of mental health conditions.

Finally, it is possible that extreme climate change could play a role in triggering conflicts over access to resources.

This article was translated from the Medscape French Edition .

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