Climate change, mosquitoes and disease: Battling a lethal trio in northern Kenya

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Beyond the well-documented rise in global temperatures, climate change is precipitating a grave public health crisis.

Northern Kenya, a region already experiencing harsh environmental changes, is feeling the brunt of this crisis as diseases spread by insects, particularly those borne by mosquitoes, escalate rapidly.

But a remarkable research project is taking shape in this vast, dry terrain, as researchers work to develop early warning systems that could save countless lives.

Scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) are aiming to untangle the complex relationship between weather changes and disease spread, thus guiding efforts toward mitigation.

Isiolo County, part of the arid and semi-arid region of Kenya, is one of the areas grappling with a surge in diseases like yellow fever, malaria, dengue and Rift Valley fever as global temperatures rise and rainfall becomes more erratic.

For example, a rise in yellow fever cases was noted between February and March 2022, following intense rains earlier in the year.

Furthermore, the county experienced several outbreaks of Rift Valley fever from December 2020 to January 2021.

Low-lying regions along the Ewaso Nyiro river basin, which are prone to flooding and hence conducive for mosquito breeding, were hardest hit.

These diseases are particularly destructive here, where healthcare resources are limited, and rural communities bear the brunt of this climate change-induced crisis.

According to the World Health Organization, diseases spread by carriers like mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas, known as vector-borne diseases, cause over 700,000 deaths globally each year.

To study the interplay between weather conditions and disease spread, the ILRI–KEMRI team has set up weather stations across Isiolo County.

These stations continuously record weather details such as temperature, humidity and rainfall, which influence mosquito populations and disease transmission.

In addition to collecting weather data, the team uses specially designed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention miniature light traps to capture mosquitoes.

Photo: Cattle at a drying river in Isiolo County, Kenya (ILRI/Geoffrey Njenga)

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