Research summary

A global study from the Australian National University, Canberra, has found that childhood gastroenteritis (gastro) is linked with extreme weather. The researchers determined that global changes in weather, including in Australia, were linked to cases of a common parasite – cryptosporidium – that can cause gastro, particularly in children under five years of age.

Dr Aparna Lal, the lead researcher of the study, stated that the research illustrated a clear link between high amounts of rainfall and flooding, and childhood cryptosporidiosis.

“It was surprising that extreme weather conditions stood out,” Dr Lal commented.

“We know flooding is linked to childhood gastro. And with climate change we can expect more extreme weather events like heavy rainfall and flooding. What our study shows is that in certain regions, this will impact water-related health risks. And the closer and closer extreme weather events like flooding take place, there is less recovery time for kids – meaning they are likely to be ill more.”

A key concern highlighted by the study is the need for better disease management in regions increasingly exposed to extreme weather events.

“Although huge public health gains have been made to reduce the burden of diarrhoea globally, climate change can threaten these gains,” Dr Lal added.

“If we want to prevent this easily spreadable parasite causing gastro in a time of climate change, a health sector driven response is not enough.”

The researchers indicated that a multisectoral approach – including doctors, policy makers, natural resource managers, the water industry and meteorologists – would be needed to comprehensively tackle this issue, and other related challenges.

Commentary

This research is undoubtedly very timely in light of predicted climate change and extreme weather event trends (see for example this recent report from Australia’s Climate Council), and highlights an important public health question – how exactly will climate change affect our children’s health?

Illustrating in great depth one potential way – increasing the risk of diarrhoeal illness – this study supports and supplements an ever-growing evidence base, which includes (but is not limited to):1

      More heatwaves will likely result in children being unable to spend as much time outside, with potential implications for health issues such as obesity;

      Increases in temperature will result in the creation of more ozone, a substance that can harm our lungs (especially the lungs of children with asthma);

      An increase in the number of bushfires will result in more air pollution, subsequently increasing the risk of respiratory issues, such as infections and asthma.

Moreover, as alluded to in the study, the effects of climate change on child health will be region dependent (ie. some regions in Australia might be at greater risk of flooding, others of heatwaves) and unpredictable.

Hopefully in the near future we will see related research that examines the most appropriate mitigation strategies for the sake of our children.