2021 Global Health Infectious Disease Conference

March 17, 2021

Global Health Infectious Disease Conference: Weighing climate health against our health

Written by Kim Furlow, Institute for Public Health

The virtual 2021 Global Health Infectious Disease Conference (April 22-23) entitled, “The Impact of Climate Change on Infectious Diseases” is just ahead and WashU infectious disease and climate change experts are speaking out about the importance of this topic on our world and ourselves. All agree that they hope attendees will walk away from the conference with a broader, multi-disciplinary lens with which to discuss climate change issues.

Victor Davila-Roman MD Photo: Robert Boston

Institute for Public Health, Global Health Center Associate Director and Professor of Medicine, Anesthesiology, and Radiology, Victor Davila-Roman, MD says, “The conference highlights the impact of climate change and the connectedness of the environment and human health and will address key actions we can take to mitigate our climate change footprint. We strongly encourage everyone to participate with us.”

Along with Dr. Davila-Roman, the following faculty weighed in on the upcoming conference, and issues affecting the current state of climate change locally and globally.

James Fleckenstein, MD
Professor of Medicine and Molecular Microbiology, School of Medicine
Kim Medley
Director of WashU’s
Tyson Research Center
Lora Iannotti, PhD
Associate Professor of Public Health and Director of the E3 Nutrition Lab, Brown SchoolJoe Steensma, EdD, MPH, MA
Professor of the Practice, Brown School


Q: How does the health of the environment affect our health?

Dr. Davila-Roman: Global warming results in profound, immediate and rapidly worsening health effects in the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems. The effects of heatwaves and wildfires predominantly affect people older than 65 years and those with disabilities and/or pre-existing medical conditions, those working outdoors or in non-cooled environments, and those living in regions already at the limits for human habitation. Finally, air pollution that results from use of oil contributes to global mortality due to ambient pollution, which has risen from 2.9 million deaths in 2015 to just over 3 million deaths in 2018.

Dr. Fleckenstein: Climate change potentially threatens all of the essential elements of healthy living that we typically take for granted. Clean air, abundant nutrient-rich food, and clean water.

Professor Iannotti: The E3 Nutrition Lab works on nutrition as relating to environmental sustainability and climate change. We recently contributed to a U.N.-published paper on “livestock-derived food and sustainable healthy diets”, which shows that food sources affect the climate and human health. The report cites, “Globally, food systems have been estimated to account for around 30 percent of global GHG emissions, 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals, 40 percent of land use and major disruptions in nutrient cycles across ecosystems (Clark et al., 2019).” The paper also speaks to One Health, which centers on the idea that “human health depends on the health of the environment and animals.”

Kim Medley: For infectious disease in particular, the majority of human disease outbreaks have originated from spillover, i.e. transmission of pathogens from animals to humans. As a result, the better we understand disease emergence in animals—which is fundamentally tied to environmental conditions—the more we can understand and mitigate the rate of infectious diseases emerging or re-emerging in the human population. In addition, the capacity for mosquito and tick vectors to transmit diseases from animals to people, and among people, is tightly linked to how the environment supports the growth and persistence of the vectors themselves. Moreover, in several systems, loss of biodiversity can result in increased rates of pathogen transmission. This is a rapidly evolving area of research that is helping us understand some of the important mechanisms linking environmental change and disease.

Professor Steensma: The health of the environment affects public health in so many ways.  The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat…these are all resources needed for human health that are borrowed from our environment, but the link between human health and the environment goes so much deeper. Small changes in climate affect where infectious diseases can thrive. Changes in ecosystems affect pollinators that help impact our food supply. The environment is not a component of health…it is the cornerstone of human health.

Q: Why is addressing the impact of climate change on health—and specifically on infectious disease—important?

Dr. Fleckenstein: Climate change threatens the lives and livelihood of millions of people on a global level, forcing mass migration, food insecurity, and lack of clean water. Under-resourced populations, already at a disadvantage, are those most likely to be severely affected by climate change, and the least equipped to adapt. The tremendous burden of infectious illnesses stemming directly from lack of access to fundamental resources like clean water and basic sanitation will almost certainly be amplified by global warming, and, it is predicted that many vector-borne infections such as malaria will expand in scope and scale in response to climate change.

Q: What are the best resources for finding more information about the effect of the environment (and changes) on infectious diseases?

Dr. Davila-Roman: The health impacts of climate change are seen on every continent, with the ongoing spread of dengue virus across South America. Despite the devastating global consequences of COVID-19, during the pandemic an 8% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was projected for 2020, representing the most rapid one-year decline of greenhouse gas emissions recorded. Best resources can be found in the scientific literature and in scientific meetings like the Global Health and Infectious Disease Conference sponsored by the Global Health Center.

Dr. Fleckenstein:

Q: In what ways can we, the public, learn more about and use sustainable practices? What should we be doing, that we’re not, in the Midwest?

Kim Medley: We can take small steps in our daily lives to live more sustainability, e.g. composting, recycling, eating vegetarian, etc. However, what we need now is big, sweeping change that will require concerted efforts between government and the private sector. So, from a local level, folks need to vote for the issues and for the people that will make effective policies that will have an immediate impact on the trajectory of the climate.

Q: Any predictions on the new administration in terms of its efforts toward climate change issues and solutions?

Dr. Fleckenstein: The overwhelming scientific consensus is that we have very little time to mitigate and reverse the impact of human contributions to greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. The present administration thankfully has taken a number of steps to reverse the disastrously anti-scientific climate change denialism approach of the previous administration. Nevertheless, the Biden administration faces many difficult priorities that may impede implementation of many milestones that we must meet in a short period of time. Rejoining the Paris Accord is a start.

Professor Steensma: I think progressives may be disappointed with what they perceive to be a less-than-full attempt to address climate change. That said, what I predict (and see already) is a monumental shift in trajectory of the policies and actions meant to address climate change. The changes will look ‘small’ to the untrained eye, but I believe the trajectory of change is such that in 15 years, we will barely recognize the energy and transportation sectors that we know today.

The 8th annual Global Health and Infectious Disease Conference, from 10 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. on April 22 & 23 will feature virtual presentations both days on a variety of topics related to climate change and infectious disease. Day two will include a panel discussion on lessons learned from COVID-19 to inform the impact of climate change on infectious disease. Each day, attendees who have registered to do so, will meet for virtual table conversations with speakers and organizers. Register for the conference and table discussions.