2021 Global Health & Infectious Disease Conference Summary

May 3, 2021

Summary: “The Impact of Climate Change on Infectious Diseases”

Written by Kim Furlow, Institute for Public Health

Washington University infectious disease and climate change experts recently joined the Global Health Center and members of the WUSTL global health community for the 8th annual Global Health & Infectious Disease Conference. Organizers hosted the event virtually this year offering a broad, multi-disciplinary lens with which to discuss climate change issues.

Victoria Fraser, MD, the Adolphus Busch Professor of Medicine and chair of the Department of Medicine launched the event saying, “There is no greater public health crisis then what we are facing with climate change, and future generations depend on us to accelerate this change for the better.”

Global Health Center Associate Director and Professor of Medicine, Anesthesiology and Radiology, Victor Dávila-Román, MD, followed with a brief overview of Global Health Center programs. He introduced the conference saying, “It’s important to address the impact of climate change and the connectedness of the environment and human health so that we can take key actions to mitigate our climate change footprint,” he said.

Director of the International Center for Energy, Environment & Sustainability (INCEES), Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Director of the WUSTL Environmental Studies Program, David Fike, PhD, spoke next, briefly discussing one of INCEES’s main collaborative projects, the Midwest Climate Summit. The annual event convenes more than 20 institutions from across the U.S. and 1,300 academic health and business leaders. The overall aim is to increase positive climate action across the Midwest.

The Global Health and Infectious Disease Conference continued with the following presentations and speakers:

COVID-19: The Road Traveled and the Path Ahead with Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, MD, MPH, John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri, who discussed data surrounding COVID-19 and. Dr. Hlatshwayo Davis said that in 2020, 67% of Black residents surveyed say they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccine hesitancy is still an issue today. Trusted messengers, data transparency, funding and policy change are the solution, she proposed.

Warmer and Wetter: Infectious Diseases on the Move in a Changing Climate with Kristie Ebi, PhD, MPH, professor in the Department of Global Health at the School of Public Health at University of Washington. Professor Ebi pointed out that ongoing climate change is altering temperature and precipitation patterns in ways that can facilitate changes in the burden of vector borne diseases. Climate change, she said, has already affected the numbers of cases of these diseases.

Climate Change Impacts on Human Health: Diarrheal Disease, Surface Water Influences, and Infrastructure Vulnerability in Flood Pulse Systems in Africa with Kathleen Alexander, DVM, PhD, professor in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech and director of the Chobe Research Institute in Kasane Botswana. Dr. Alexander discussed environmental drivers and their potential to influence pathogen transmission dynamics and links between meteorology and flood pulse dynamics. She also briefed the audience on the impact of climate change on environmentally linked disease syndromes such as diarrheal disease.

The audience had a chance to engage in a Q&A session with speakers, moderated by Brown School Professor of the Practice, Joe Steensma, EdD.

Mid-morning presentations included:

Historical Correlations among Volcanic Eruptions, Climate Change and Pandemics

with Michael Wysession, PhD, professor of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wysession pointed out the interconnectedness of Earth systems, and how a change in one part of an Earth system, can have significant human impacts at other times and in other places. Volcanic eruptions have altered climate conditions allowing for the spread of global pandemics like cholera, which ensued (also spreading to Missouri) in 1815 following the eruption of Mt. Tambora, Wyession said.

A Time of Great Opportunities – One Health in an Age of Climate Change, Extinctions and a Pandemic with Sharon Deem, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACZM, director of the Institute for Conservation Medicine at the Saint Louis Zoo. Dr. Deem discussed the One Health concept, and the fact that human health is dependent on animal and environmental health. She also discussed public health challenges such as how climate change factors into zoonosis (disease transmission from animals to humans.)

Following the final presentation, Q&A was moderated by Rodrigo Reis, PhD, Associate Dean of Public Health at WUSTL’s Brown School. The conference ended with table conversations with speakers and conference planning committee. Rama Balasubramaniam, Global Health Student Advisory Committee (GHSAC) vice chair, opened the session and Blake Sells, GHSAC member, made closing remarks followed by David Fike, PhD.

Watch the day one conference video.

The second day of the conference kicked off with a welcome from Beth Martin, MS, PE, teaching professor in Environmental Studies and associate director of the Washington University Climate Change Program.

Second day presentations included:

Climate Change, Conflict and Connectivity across Borders: Sociocultural Factors Affecting the Frontline of Public Health Response with Rebecca Merrill, PhD, MHS, lead in the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Merrill suggested that in order to reduce the international spread of disease, cross-border collaboration between governments and public health stakeholders must include response to the sociocultural factors of population movement. Climate change and civil conflict often effect inter- and intra-regional community connectivity and associated communicable disease spread, she said.

Improving Predictions of West Nile Virus Risk through Recognition of the Scale-Dependence of Weather Drivers with Sara Paull, PhD, MHS, assistant professor of Environmental & Occupational Health at Colorado School of Public Health. Dr. Paul talked about the dominant factors of West Nile Virus outbreaks and their dependence on temperature variation across small spatial scales. She also discussed the importance of considering scale and nonlinear relationships when predicting disease risk under future climate change.

Climate Change: Be Prepared and Act! with Steve Mahfood, BS, former head of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Mr. Mahfood outlined the risks of climate change and gave suggestions for being prepared, how to adapt and how to be a part of the solution.

Q&A with the audience, moderated by Professor Martin, was followed by a panel entitled, Lessons Learned from COVID to Inform the Impact of Climate Change on Infectious Disease moderated by Kim Medley, PhD, director of the WUSTL Tyson Research Center and Joe Steensma, EdD.

Global Health Student Advisory Committee members Kayla Wallace and Nina Crosby Walton led virtual table conversations with speakers and conference organizers and Kim Medley gave closing remarks for the conference.

Watch the day two conference video.

The 2021 conference is supported by:

Global Health Student Advisory Committee; International Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; Tyson Research Center; Living Earth Collaborative; Brown School MPH Program; and, Washington University Climate Change Program