Discussing the roles of Japan and the United States in combating climate change and malaria: Event report on the World Malaria Day 2021 Commemorative Event (Part 1)

In commemoration of World Malaria Day 2021 (25 April), the ZERO Malaria 2030 Campaign (Management Office: Malaria No More Japan) held an online event on the evening of 16th of April to discuss the impact of climate change on malaria and countermeasures.

As climate change becomes more pronounced, there are concerns about the increase in malaria prevalence and the expansion of the regions that will start to experience malaria transmission where there was none before. The movement of people between countries and regions has also become more active, and the possibility of a global epidemic has been pointed out. It can happen in Japan, too. Administrators, researchers, and politicians from both countries engaged in a lively discussion on what stance Japan and the United States, which have been leading international malaria control efforts, should take in the future.

In Part 1 of the event report, it will focus on the current status of climate change and infectious diseases in the world and Japan, as well as the latest reports on measures taken by political, administrative and academic fields.

Climate Change and Infectious Diseases Today

Hiroshi Ono, Director General of the Global Environment Bureau, Ministry of the Environment, Japan, gave a detailed report on the current status of climate change in the world and Japan, and the latest trends in measures taken by each country.

The annual average temperature of the world in 2019 was the second highest in recorded history, rising 0.74°C in the last 100 years. In Japan, the average temperature in 2019 was also the highest recorded since statistics began in 1898. Mr. Ono said, “global warming in Japan is faster than the global average. If we don’t take sufficient measures, the temperature in 2100 is expected to be 1.1-4.4 degrees Celsius higher than now”.

What will be the impact of climate change on infectious diseases?

Based on the Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Mr. Ono said “although it is not yet clear whether the current distribution of malaria in Africa is changing due to climate change, a consensus is growing that the risk of malaria epidemics will increase in high altitude areas of East Africa”.

How will climate change or its impact on infectious diseases appear in Japan?

The effects of climate change have already been seen in various aspects of industry and daily life, such as crops, natural ecosystems, corals, natural disasters, record rainfall, and an increase in the number of heat stroke patients.

As for malaria, there were about 200,000 patients in Japan in the early 1900s, but as a result of various measures taken, the disease disappeared in Honshu (Japan’s main island) in 1956 and in Okinawa in 1962. On the other hand, due to global warming, the spread of other infectious diseases has become a concern.

As an example, Mr. Ono introduced how the habitat of the Aedes albopictus, which transmits infectious diseases such as dengue fever, is moving northward as the temperature rises. “As the habitat of mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis expands, the risk of outbreaks will naturally increase”, he said.

With COVID-19 still unresolved, what is the current status of malaria control?

Akio Okawara, President of the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE) and Director of the Friends of the Global Fund, Japan (FGFJ), which is working to combat the three major infectious diseases of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria with the cooperation of the international community, including the G7 countries, said, “While much effort is being put into fighting COVID-19, infectious diseases such as malaria continue to be a threat in Asia and Africa.

Last year, due to the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLINs) could not be distributed in the supported areas before the epidemic season during the rainy period. The LLINs thus had to be delivered door to door by community health workers.”

Mr. Okawara said, “the number of COVID-19 cases and the malaria service delivery are inversely correlated. As a result, it has been pointed out that the number of deaths due to malaria would most likely increase in the future. We must not relax our measures against existing infectious diseases if we do not want to reverse what we have achieved so far. In addition, as we strive towards 2030, the target year of the SDGs, and while fighting the COVID-19 crisis, global solidarity has never been more needed than now,” and stressed the significance of Japan’s further contribution to global health.

National cooperation and domestic political trends

In the midst of all this, awareness of climate change is growing worldwide, and a series of national-level talks on climate change are scheduled to be held in 2021.

Prior to this, in October 2020, the Japanese government declared that Japan would be carbon neutral by 2050. Carbon neutrality is an initiative to make greenhouse gas emissions “neutral”, meaning that they are “zero”, and other major countries have joined in the effort to become carbon neutral by 2050.

On April 16, the day of the event, the leaders of Japan and the U.S. held a summit meeting in Washington, D.C., where they announced the Japan-U.S. Climate Partnership, a plan to strengthen cooperation on climate change issues.

The two-day “Climate Change Summit” held on April 22 and 23 was attended by 40 leaders. In conjunction with the summit, the U.S. government announced its goal of reducing emissions in 2030 to 50%-52% of the 2005 levels, a significant acceleration from the previous goal of 26% reduction. The Japanese government has also announced that it will reduce its emissions in 2030 to 46% of the 2013 level.

At the event, Josh Blumenfeld, Managing Director of Malaria No More US, described the Biden administration’s environmental policies as “the most ambitious in U.S. history”.

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is scheduled to be held in November.

As for how to achieve Japan’s 2030 and 2050 goals, Mr. Ono said, “the key will be how much renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy can be added, and how to overcome the various issues that may arise”.

At Japan’s national political level, there has been a flurry of activity in the fight against malaria, including the establishment of the non-partisan Parliamentary Group to End Malaria by 2030 on March 25.

Former Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who assumed the post of chairperson of Parliamentary Group to End malaria by 2030, said, “malaria is a serious disease that infects more than 200 million people a year and kills more than 400,000 people worldwide. Unfortunately, however, Japan’s ODA (Official Development Assistance) spending in the field of health and medical care is only the sixth largest in the world and does not contribute enough compared to infrastructure development”.

“The Liberal Democratic Party has put together a proposal to double Japan’s ODA in the healthcare sector over the next five years, and the Prime Minister’s Office has just established a command post for this purpose,” he said.

Research on predicting malaria outbreaks

Climate change is also a factor in the spread of unexpected infectious diseases.

“Malaria is a disease of poverty, and it is also the infectious disease among those who will be first affected by climate change”, said Noboru Minakawa, a professor at Nagasaki University’s Institute of Tropical Medicine who has been conducting epidemiological research on malaria in Africa.

Although LLINs are widely available and effective treatments have been established, countries with limited financial resources are at risk of spreading the disease if they are unable to prepare and distribute malaria rapid diagnostic test (RDT) kits and medicines in the event of an outbreak or rapid spread outside of the epidemic season.

Therefore, the World Health Organization (WHO) is proposing a system to issue early warnings of infectious disease outbreaks based on weather data forecasts. As a part of such a system, Professor Minakawa introduced the results of a malaria forecasting research project that he has been working on in South Africa for several years.

Using the supercomputers of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) to reproduce simulations of how the atmosphere and the oceans affect each other, it has become possible to predict the outbreak of infectious diseases with a certain degree of accuracy six months or a year before oceanic changes such as El Niño, La Niña, and the Indian Ocean Dipole Mode phenomenon occur.

“If the forecasting project is realized, we can distribute mosquito nets and spray insecticides in advance, and also stockpile medicine. Even in a situation like COVID-19 outbreak, where we can’t move, we can share forecast data. These efforts will become important in the future”, Professor Minakawa said.

Continue to Part 2