The Relationship Between Extreme Weather Events and Disease Outbreaks

As the pace of climate change accelerates, we’re seeing more extreme weather events occurring all over the globe. Devastating storms, heat waves, deep freezes, and forest fires are just some of the weather events that have been wreaking havoc on communities, causing fatalities, displacement, and property loss. 

Extreme weather events are bad enough as it is. What’s worse, though, is that these weather events can ultimately lead to disease outbreaks of different kinds. Communities still reeling from their losses are forced to deal with the devastation of severe illness. 

By understanding the link between weather events and disease, we can better prepare to meet these challenges as weather events become even more frequent. Here’s what we know about the relationship between extreme weather events and different kinds of disease outbreaks. 

Water-Borne Illnesses Increase After Natural Disasters

After a natural disaster, local infrastructure typically takes a major hit. During a major storm, for instance, flooding can affect the services that are available to residents and can also affect water quality and sanitation. 

Waterborne diseases, including cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery, often spike in the wake of a weather event that contaminates the water supply. Sewage, chemicals, and other pollutants may enter the water, which is then used for a variety of household uses. 

Getting safe water to use after an extreme weather event can be extremely challenging. As water is so critical to many aspects of daily life, people often have no choice but to use contaminated water after a storm or another weather event. Although many water-borne illnesses have high survival rates with treatment, they can still be extremely serious and even life-threatening. 

Extreme Weather Increases Risks of Vector-Borne Diseases 

Vector-borne diseases are those carried by another organism, usually an insect. Many extreme weather events can create conditions that allow these vectors to thrive. When insect populations explode due to heavy rainfall, humid conditions, and high temperatures, the incidence of vector-borne diseases increases. 

Many vector-borne diseases are difficult to treat and can have a long-term impact on an individual’s life. Malaria, dengue fever, Zika, and Lyme disease are just a few examples of diseases that are carried by insects and pose a greater risk to humans after some types of weather events.  

Airborne Diseases and Extreme Weather

After an extreme weather event, air quality is often extremely poor. Events such as dust storms can easily carry pathogens across large areas, increasing the likelihood of an outbreak. Air pollution, high temperatures, and humidity can also play a role in allowing diseases to thrive and make people more likely to develop respiratory conditions and other airborne diseases. People who already have respiratory conditions typically find that they get much worse when air quality is poor and irritates their tissues. 

Additionally, people are often forced to evacuate their homes during a natural disaster and temporarily take shelter with other members of the community. Having so many people in close proximity to one another means that viruses and other diseases that pass from person to person can quickly spread and even mutate, causing major outbreaks. 

Weather, Climate Change and Public Health are All Connected 

People who have been affected by natural disasters have often lost their homes or even their loved ones. On top of everything else, the stress involved with being affected by a natural disaster can compromise a person’s immune system. This makes them more susceptible to diseases of all kinds. Public health officials have to monitor populations carefully after weather events and help prevent public health concerns from getting out of hand.   

The last thing people need when they’re trying to rebuild their lives after a natural disaster is to develop a serious illness, but the conditions are often just right for an outbreak to occur. When survival is the goal, people have to make tough choices that can lead to unwanted consequences either way. 

It’s important to understand how climate change is linked to public health issues like disease outbreaks so that we can take steps to prevent illness as much as possible. At this point, we know that natural disasters are only going to get more frequent if climate change isn’t kept in check. Being prepared and understanding how these issues are connected can help us meet the challenges and keep people healthy after an extreme weather event.