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Climate change brings new disease threats

Dozens of tiny makeshift houses - which line this narrow alleyway in Karet Tengsin next to Krukut River in central Jakarta - were flooded last month after a day of heavy rain.
(Marianne Kearney/IRIN)

The rapid change in the world’s climate is putting Indonesia at greater risk of infectious diseases, according to health specialists.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest report stated that climate change would bring severe risks to developing countries such as Indonesia and have negative implications for achieving the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and for health equity.

According to the country’s Health Ministry, because of lack of funds, key sectors such as water and sanitation would not meet the goals by 2015.

The WHO report states that infections caused by pathogens transmitted by insect vectors are strongly affected by climatic conditions such as temperature, rainfall and humidity.

These diseases, according to the WHO report, include some of the significant killers, including malaria, dengue fever and other infections carried by insect vectors. The latest data from the Health Ministry for 2007 show 700 deaths from malaria and 1,570 from dengue fever, but many more go unrecorded. The incidence of diarrhoea, which if untreated can kill, is also expected to increase, transmitted mainly through contaminated water, the WHO report stated.

Photo: ReliefWeb
A map of Indonesia

The government acknowledges the dangers. “Climate change does, indeed, increase the health threat to Indonesia because the warmer environment encourages vectors of water-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria,” the spokeswoman for the Health Ministry, Lily Sulistyowati, told IRIN.

“Malaria, for example, is a specific disease for tropical countries such as Indonesia that has been affected by climate change because it has shortened the birth cycle of mosquitoes,” she said, which increases exponentially the number of mosquitoes.

More than two-thirds of the 576 districts in Indonesia have been classified as malaria endemic areas, with more than 100 million people, out of a population of about 230 million, at risk, according to the Health Minister, Siti Fadilah Supari.

“Warmer weather caused by climate change puts people who live at higher altitudes in greater risk of malaria and dengue fever,” Sulistyowati told IRIN, although she had no specific numbers of how many more people would be at risk.

Flood risk

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned late last year that the impact of global warming was already evident in Indonesia and would likely worsen.

“Indonesia could suffer from too much rain, as climate change increases rainfall at wet times of the year, leading to a higher incidence of floods,” WWF stated, adding that it would trigger greater numbers of malaria and dengue fever cases. In addition, severe heat waves and prolonged droughts, combined with flooding, would lead to increased injury, illness and death and an increase in other infectious diseases because of poor nutrition due to food production disruptions, WWF predicted.

Photo: Marianne Kearney/IRIN
A hand washing campaign involving 600 students and 600 mothers of students at the Mandala Krida Stadium, Yogyakarta is an example of preventative measures being taken by the Indonesian government

WHO, in its report, stated that climate change could no longer be considered simply an environmental or a developmental issue. It would affect the health and well-being of all populations, with effects escalating into the foreseeable future. A greater understanding of the health implications of climate change – and related development choices – could lead to improved policies and more active public engagement.

“There are always things to worry about with a tropical country like Indonesia, and as such the government has the obligation to take more precautions dealing with climate change,” WHO’s medical officer, Steven Beorge, told IRIN.

“We are aware of the situation, but not in a state of paranoia,” Sulistyowati told IRIN. “We are trying our best to socialise this issue to Indonesian people, to raise awareness,” she said, adding that preventive measures were most appropriate because the country’s budget may not stretch to curative measures.

“We can only afford to prevent these emerging diseases caused by the climate change,” she said, suggesting that people be aware and take action to prevent diseases such as dengue fever and malaria by removing standing water that are breeding grounds for mosquitoes.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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