To Predict How Climate Change Will Affect Disease, Researchers Must Fuse Climate Science and Biology

Predicting how climate change will affect the incidence of infectious diseases is made difficult by the complex relationship between climate and disease. In a recent review paper, PEI associated faculty Jessica Metcalf, a Princeton assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs, and coauthors write that researchers need new statistical models that incorporate both climate factors and the climate-disease relationship, and account for uncertainties in both.

Predicting how climate change will affect the incidence of infectious diseases would have great public health benefits. But the relationship between climate and disease is extraordinarily complex, making such predictions difficult. Simply identifying correlations and statistical associations between climatic factors and disease won’t be enough, said PEI associated faculty Jessica Metcalf, a Princeton assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs. Instead, researchers need new statistical models that incorporate both climate factors and the climate-disease relationship, and account for uncertainties in both.

Metcalf presented examples of possible models in a recent review paper that written with co-authors from a number of American and international institutions and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Some infectious diseases move from person to person, whether through the air (flu), through contaminated water and food (cholera) or through arthropods such as mosquitoes (malaria). Others reside in animals but can be transmitted to humans under certain conditions. For example, people can acquire hantavirus (which causes severe respiratory illness) when they breathe particles from contaminated rodent droppings that have been stirred into the air, and ticks transmit Lyme disease from deer to people. Climatic factors could affect the scale of disease at any stage, Metcalf said.