Fight Against Dengue to Embrace Climate Change Research

The fight against dengue fever, a virus that has killed more than 120 people in Cambodia so far this year, will for the first time be linked with efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change in the country through a World Health Organization (WHO) project set to receive funding this week.

The project, which will expand upon existing interventions against dengue fever, as well as track climate and weather patterns in relation to the virus, will receive about $300,000 in funding from the Cambodian Climate Change Alliance.

The thrust of the 15-month project, according to Joshua Nealon, a technical officer for the WHO working on climate change and vector-borne diseases, is to strengthen control of dengue fever on a local level in order to lessen the impact of climate change.

This includes improving the capacity of communities to control the dengue-carrying Aedes mosquito populations around their homes as well as educating families to identify symptoms of dengue and seek medical assistance before the disease becomes life-threatening.

The project will also bring together the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology to compare trends in weather systems with trends in dengue fever outbreaks, which predictably occur during the rainy season.

“This is the holy grail. Looking at weather data and saying: ‘This is what needs to happen now to control an outbreak,’” Mr. Nealon said.

But whether this is a realistic outcome, said Mr. Nealon, is uncertain, given that no country in the world is able to predict dengue fever outbreaks with 100 percent accuracy based on meteorological information.

The more likely impact of the project, according to Steven Iddings, an environmental scientist with the WHO in Cambodia, is the improved capacity of existing initiatives working to control dengue fever in the country.

“What’s being done [with projects linked to climate change] are things that would be a good idea anyhow, but the expectation for extreme weather is a way to prompt preparation,” said Mr. Iddings.

Ngan Chantha, director of the National Dengue Control Program, said that the planned project tying together dengue fever and climate change will help expand the operations of his organization’s ongoing interventions, which received about $1 million in funding last year.

While a direct link between climate change and dengue fever is largely theoretical at this point, the threat posed by the virus is real and expanding, according to Mr. Nealon.

“The impacts of climate change [on dengue fever] are less concrete, but what has been seen is the expansion of the virus from urban to rural areas,” he said.

There were 124 deaths out of 30,944 reported cases of dengue fever this year as of August 28, compared with 48 deaths out of 11,020 dengue cases in all of 2011, according to WHO statistics.

The expanding migration of people, along with mosquitoes and the viruses they carry, may have played a part in the spike in dengue cases this year, but other factors also contributed to the rise, said Steven Bjorge, team leader of the WHO’s malaria and vector-borne diseases program.

“What’s being reported is dengue-like symptoms,” he said, explaining that the misdiagnosis of other viruses as dengue, improved surveillance mechanisms which allow for more cases to be reported, as well as the immunity of the population to the strain of dengue that is prevalent in a given year, must also be accounted for.

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