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Africa’s Climate Crisis Is a Health Crisis

Africans are facing increased but underappreciated risks to their health as a result of rising temperatures and changing climatic conditions. And since many of these new threats cannot simply be managed with "climate adaptation," policymakers must get ahead of them now.

DAKAR – The planet is losing its ability to support life as we know it, and nowhere is this clearer than in Africa – the continent that is most vulnerable to climate change despite having contributed the least to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse-gas emissions. Beyond the increasingly frequent extreme weather, Africans are also facing increased risks to their health. As World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted just before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) last month, “The climate crisis is a health crisis. Climate change is already impacting health in many ways, through more frequent and extreme weather events [and] more disease outbreaks.”

Climate change is a “threat multiplier” for diseases that are disproportionately prevalent in Africa. For example, the region accounts for over 90% of the global malaria burden, and the WHO estimates that climate change will lead to an additional 60,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, almost a 15% increase, from an entirely preventable and treatable disease. Warmer temperatures and more rainfall will expand the habitat for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, creating new potential hotspots for infections. In 2007, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change projected that, by 2030, developing countries would need an additional $5 billion per year to treat “increased cases of diarrhoeal disease, malnutrition and malaria due to climate change.”

The risks hardly stop there. Africans account for over one-third of all people affected by neglected tropical diseases, a diverse group of 20 conditions that disproportionately affect women and children. The prevalence of NTDs is often related to environmental conditions. Much like malaria, these diseases are directly influenced by temperature, rainfall, relative humidity, and climatic changes. Small fluctuations in temperature can increase transmission and spread, with potentially devastating effects. Visceral leishmaniasis, for example, is often fatal if left untreated, and higher temperatures are known to accelerate its development within sand flies.