Tracking Vulnerabilities to the Risks of Infectious Disease Transmission due to Climate Change in Europe

by Amelia Hamiter

Suk et al. (2014) examine vulnerability as a measurement of both the impact of climate change on infections disease transmission in a region and the region’s ability to respond (described here as adaptive capacity). This concept of vulnerability differs from that used in most public health practices, which generally do not take adaptive capacity as a component of vulnerability. Indeed, the authors note that the health sector has produced little research that examines infectious disease transmission due to climate change or the effects of different socioeconomic development pathways in studies of vulnerability. Thus, they take on the task of creating a quantitative indicator to measure regional vulnerabilities that combines all of these factors. Their projections assess which regions are projected to undergo climate changes more significant than their adaptive capacities, and thus are particularly vulnerable. They evaluate that some of these high vulnerabilities are driven by low adaptive capacities, while others have high adaptive capacities yet face enough projected climate change that they are still highly vulnerable. The researchers recommend that the next steps forward are to carry out more disease-specific and more detailed health indicators of vulnerability studies.

Researchers used the European Observation Network, Territorial Development and Cohesion (EPSON) approach to modelling vulnerability, which measures vulnerability as the reciprocal relationship between climate change impact and adaptive capacity. Their index parameters projected vulnerability for the years 2035 and 2055 for subnational regions of the European Union Member States. Their index is general rather than disease-specific, with the intent that it could in the future be combined with data regarding specific infectious diseases to asses more specific indicators and risks.

Temperature and precipitation were the two variables for measuring climate change impact. For adaptive capacity, the index used the EPSON dataset, which takes into account factors such as public health and healthcare infrastructure, economic resources, governance, etc. The resulting index has plenty of limitations, as noted by the authors. Two main limitations they mentioned are that future-oriented models cannot be well validated, and that regional variability and varying healthcare system structures are difficult to account for.

The index results project that the highest adaptive capacities (and lowest baseline vulnerabilities) are in Scandinavia, southeast England, and central Europe, while the lowest adaptive capacities (and highest baseline vulnerabilities) are in southern and eastern Europe. The regions facing the largest changes in temperature and/or precipitation are expected to face the largest climate-related infections disease problems. In some regions, the adaptive capacity is able to mitigate climate change impacts to some extent, while in others, lower adaptive capacities lead to higher vulnerability index rankings even if the impact index is not as high. Some regions in the Iberian peninsula, the UK and Ireland, and southern France, rank in higher quintile ranges for both impact and vulnerability indices, indicating that regardless of the level of their respective adaptive capacities, they are not high enough to mitigate the expected high impact of climate change.

Suk, J.E., Ebi, K.L., Vose, D., Wint, W., et al. 2014. Indicators for Tracking European Vulnerabilities to the Risks of Infections Disease Transmission due to Climate Change. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 11, 2218-2235.


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