May 16, 2022 8:15 am

“There are no protocols to mitigate the impact of climate change on health”

The research of scientist Jaime Martínez Urtaza integrates different disciplines: molecular biology, microbiology, population genetics, oceanography, epidemiology and climate science. With this plural perspective, he has participated as a specialist in the infectious diseases working group for the latest report of Lancet Countdown on health and climate change.

What role do you give to climate summits?

It is a difficult question to answer. What we see is that the years pass and this one, which is already the 26th, continues practically where we were, saying that the limit of 1.5 ºC is not going to be achieved. In addition, energy policies and the use and customs of the day do not change either. This indicates that we are not doing much and is a bit exasperating. Any change that may be productive has to come very well raised from the highest political spheres towards the daily activity of citizens; however, on a day-to-day basis it is not observed that people make decisions about their lives based on climate change. We are not yet at that level.

What message must then be transmitted so that it will catch on with the people and join a struggle that benefits us all as a species?

The catastrophic message is not effective, because it tires. I am more in favor of motivating action, which is something that is beginning to be done. On the one hand, telling people how to behave helps to achieve that goal, but citizens have to see that politicians are also in the same position. What cannot be is that the political measures are incongruous. It is a vicious cycle that has not just been broken. The change is of such magnitude that it has to reach each of the social, business and economic levels. The entire chain must be involved. Furthermore, it is a problem of inequality. It is very difficult to convince someone to consume a local product, because it is better, when it will cost five times more than another one that comes from the other side of the world.

It is very difficult to convince someone to consume a local product, because it is better, when it will cost five times more

According to the study recently published in The Lancet, of which he is a co-author, progress in the fight against food and water security is beginning to be reversed. How?

What our work reflects is that there is no progression as expected. In other words, we believed that as measures were implemented, that objective of 1.5ºC of the Paris Agreement would be reached. However, it is highly unlikely that it will stay there. It seems that it is going to go higher, to 2ºC and 2.5ºC, with which the consequences are going to be devastating. There is no room for maneuver anymore. On the other hand, it was expected that the exit from the pandemic and the covid would take stricter measures and move more towards that maximum, but it is seen that the urgency and the needs that the covid-19 has created go exactly the opposite side . Things are being done quickly again, to get out of trouble and get back into activity, often with more damaging effects.

Regarding the protocols, have they been improved in this regard?

Precisely this study, which is a massive collaboration of many international institutions, what has shown is that there are no protocols, not only for infectious diseases, but on the impact of climate change on health. For example, in the day-to-day life of Spanish health policy, I would be unable to tell you if a health policy is being implemented aimed at climate change. Studies are done, such as the impact of heat waves or other climatic phenomena, but in many countries there is not even the infrastructure to make it possible.

Why are we like this at this point, when we have experienced a pandemic and we see the climate crisis and its consequences already today?

To study the effects of climate change in any aspect, very robust historical databases are needed. If you try to get data on infectious diseases that are more than 30 years old, you find that for most there is none. In many countries, because this historical compilation is missing. For this reason, most of the research is found in the United States, the United Kingdom and in the Nordic countries, where there is tradition and they have been collected over time.

With covid, things are being done again quickly, to get out of trouble and regain activity, often with more damaging effects

Regarding food security, what new challenges will we have to face?

One of the main points is that climate change affects, above all, the most vulnerable populations, that is, children and the elderly in countries where income is low. If, for example, a heat wave comes and we are saying that in Spain a new temperature record was almost reached, touching 50 ºC, we must think about a world of this type and adapt to these circumstances. If we are going to use air conditioning to combat it, only a part of the population will have the resources to do so. Those who cannot access are going to be more exposed. This can be extrapolated to low-income countries where there is nothing they can do to adapt. Furthermore, its effects are often difficult to differentiate. For example, droughts in one region of the planet can cause people to move and emigrate, which can bring diseases that previously did not exist in new areas. A collateral effect can arise with migration, demographic and health problems directly.

And in Spain?

Spain is, due to its geographical position, highly exposed to the effects of climate change. There are very notable repercussions, both in the increase in average temperatures and in the rainfall patterns in the entire northern zone, which has totally changed the climate, especially in winter times. Think that many times climate change is not related to the increase in temperature, but there is no thermal oscillation between the maximum temperature and the minimum temperature of the year. If winters are not as cold as they used to be, it can have more of an impact on health. It increases the life cycle of mosquitoes, which are vectors of infectious diseases, and the period of exposure, as well as the number of cases and the associated risk. At a quantitative level, the effects are greater as you get closer to the poles. Somehow the warming is going to become even more evident in the high latitude areas of Europe, such as Norway or Sweden and the entire Baltic region. It does not affect all regions in the same way.

The warming will be even more evident in the high latitude areas of Europe, such as Norway or Sweden and the entire Baltic region

When you talk about infectious diseases, apart from those transmitted by mosquitoes, what other pathologies do you study?

The study of The Lancet He began by studying, for example, dengue. Other diseases, in which I have worked for many years, are those transmitted by water by Vibrio parahaemolyticus, where, being bacteria that depend on coastal areas and associated with the consumption of shellfish, if they live in warmer waters they will be able to thrive in more quantity and expand. As the coasts warm, the distribution of these pathogenic bacteria is increasing towards the north, so that the last ones have already been detected almost at the level of the north pole. What in the 1970s and 1980s were bacteria considered to be of tropical origin, with infections almost limited to the Asian region, today they are causing infections throughout the world and in areas as high as the Baltic.

He has also studied that El Niño or La Niña influence these diseases.

They are phenomena other than climate change. El Niño has always existed historically. It happens frequently, not always periodically, but when a series of conditions are met. It has a global climate impact because the climate changes in different regions. Where it affects the most is in Peru and Chile, and converts coasts that are desert to a tropical climate with torrential rains. This causes mosquitoes to breed and reach places where there is normally no water. El Niño years are typically hotter and rainy, so these diseases spread. What appears, but is not clear, is that El Niño events have been intensifying in strength as there has been more warming.

As the coastline warms, the distribution of pathogenic bacteria increases towards the north, so that the latter have already been detected almost at the level of the pole.

How do you work in a group like yours, with such different fields of research?

At the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) we are working on genomics and evolution, but I have a series of collaborators, with whom I have worked for years, such as Joaquín Triñanes, from the University of Santiago de Compostela, who is the other Spaniard in the report The Lancet. He is an oceanographer physicist and manages all climate and ocean data by satellite. He makes models of maps that are what appear in my work. For other types of studies, we have classical epidemiologists who work at the European Center for Disease Transmission in Stockholm, where I was working a few years ago. The National Institute of Peru also collaborates, where I am a scientific advisor. This type of study is done thanks to the contribution of scientists around the world.

Now that we are overcoming the pandemic, what emerging diseases should we be concerned about?

With climate change and destruction of the environment, we are increasingly exposed to this direct contact with wild animals. The natural habitats that we are destroying served as a mattress to avoid these infectious diseases. In my field, we continue to work in the area of Vibrio, using the sequencing of 10,000 from around the world to make the global distribution of all pathogenic populations and how they may be interconnected. With Oscar Cabezón’s group from the UAB we are doing sequencing and they are doing studies of wild fauna focused on knowing these pathogens of zoonotic origin that may be a risk for humans in the future. The current study is of bat populations in Catalonia, to see what type of pathogens these animals may have that, now, or in the future, pose risks to humans.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.