More and more scientific research link the effects of the climate crisis with health problems and, more precisely, with the worsening of some diseases: “There is a clear threat of climate change and we must be prepared,” says microbiologist Philippe J. Sansonetti of the Institut Pasteur (Paris).
Recently awarded in Spain with the “Abarca” prize, the international prize of Dr. Juan Abarca for medical sciences, this scientist is an expert on Shigella bacteria, the causative agent of bacillary dysentery, which primarily affects developing countries.
Considered one of the founders of cellular microbiology, Sansonetti states in an interview for EFE that “It is hard to believe” that the consequences of climate change do not affect us.
For example, extreme weather events such as floods can undermine hygiene measureswhich, in the case of shigellosis, are key to suppressing its transmission (the bacteria that cause the disease are found in the stools of sick people).
“It is clear that shigellosis will benefit from this situation; there will be effects of climate change that will worsen the disease,” the researcher summarizes, but not only: “It is clear that, globally, the behavior of infectious diseases will also change.”
The latest Lancet Countdown report, published last week, which included the work of 99 experts from 51 institutions, warned that permanent dependence on fossil fuels endangers health present and future generations.
It is mentioned, among other things, that climate change affects the spread of diseases: malaria transmission time increased by 32.1% in the highlands of America and 14.9% in Africa between 2012-2021, compared to the period 1951-1960.
Asked about these findings and other studies along these lines, Sansonetti states: “We have to be ready because the threat is real.”
In this sense, the researcher reports that in France it was found that the tiger mosquito (carrier of many infectious diseases) is spreading. and now it is found in areas where it was not before: in the last five years there have been 90 cases of local dengue.
Microbes in the fight against climate change
And what can leaders and experts who will meet at COP27 do? Sansonetti says he misses everything related to microbiology. “We are talking about macrobiology, but we forget the ecology of microbes, and microbes are everywhere.”
“All ecosystems have plants, animals, people, but also microbes”points out the scientist who, although he admits “more and more signs” when it comes to taking microorganisms into account in the fight against climate change, assures that “it is difficult to convince what you cannot see”.
For example, plants grow because they capture nitrogen, a process they do thanks to microorganisms; “If we lose them, there is an imbalance and we will reach for more fertilizers.”
Optimistic about shigellosis vaccine
Sansonetti, a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has developed various programs aimed at improving the health of children; “shigellosis – which is barely visible – remains one of the most important pediatric problems in Africa.
The implementation of hygienic and sanitary prevention measures presents difficulties, and a high prevalence of multiresistant strains to antibiotics has been observed, which is why – he emphasizes the solution passes through the vaccine.
He has spent decades researching the field and claims to be “always optimistic.”
One of the prototypes was developed at his institute and, after receiving funding from the European Union for the first phase of a clinical trial, which was found to have no significant side effects and a good immune response, In 2017, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided to support the project.
A phase II clinical trial has just ended in Kenya, involving infants, confirming a “very high” level of immunity: “good results have been confirmed, especially in the younger population, a critical point”.
An independent commission will decide in December/January whether the trial will go to the final stage. The foundation’s plans are for the vaccine to be on the market in 2025; “Hopefully we’ll eventually have a vaccine.”