UVA Joins Consortium Probing Links Between Climate Change, Childhood Disease

January 10, 2024
Child's hand being run under water

UVA Health researchers have joined an international group to investigate whether climate change is negating years of effort to reduce incidents of childhood diarrhea across the globe. The condition kills more than 500,000 children a year.

UVA Health researchers are joining a new international consortium to understand how climate change may be affecting a leading cause of death for children under 5 years old.

Childhood diarrhea contributes to more than 500,000 deaths of young children each year, mostly in tropical and lower-income regions of the world. Consortium researchers fear climate change is threatening the progress made to battle this disease in the past decades. They believe floods and droughts could have dire effects on the countries and communities most stricken by childhood diarrhea.

“There’s been so much progress in reducing the burden of this disease in the past few decades, and now there’s a risk of that all being undone by climate change,” said Josh Colston, an epidemiologist with the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health.

Colston and Dr. James Platts-Mills are leading UVA Health’s contributions to a new international consortium known by the acronym SPRINGS. The Amsterdam Institute of Global Health and Development and Amsterdam UMC, a leading medical center, are spearheading the group.

Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia
Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia

“First and foremost, public health decision-makers in the countries and regions affected by this problem need to be empowered with the tools and evidence they need to build health systems that are prepared for the impacts of a changing climate on the populations they serve,” Colston said. “That’s what the SPRINGS initiative aims to provide.” 

Climate Change and Childhood Diarrhea

Colston and his collaborators hope to better understand how shifting weather patterns and climate change affect the spread of rotavirus, Cryptosporidium, Shigella and Campylobacter, four of the major bugs responsible for childhood diarrhea. Scientists will collaborate to combine pathogen data they collect with climate and meteorological projections. 

Working with meteorologists at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and other partners in Europe, they will test intervention strategies for different climate scenarios. Results will be shared with stakeholders in the most affected countries, as well as other scientists, using an online dashboard and other tools.

The consortium will also conduct case studies to understand the potential effects of climate change on waterborne causes of diarrhea and assist in efforts to battle diarrhea at the local level. 

“Contaminated water is assumed to be a major risk factor for diarrhea in children,” said Platts-Mills, a clinician-scientist in UVA’s Division of Infectious Disease and International Health. “This study will apply molecular diagnostics to understand the relative importance of waterborne transmission for specific causes of diarrhea, which will provide critical data for modeling potential interventions.”

Shaping Smart Policies

The SPRINGS consortium aims to understand how climate change may affect water supplies, the environment and the spread of diarrhea-causing pathogens.

“We see that the impact of climate change on disease transmission depends on the constantly changing interaction between climate events, local vulnerabilities and exposure to disease,” Dr. Vanessa Harris, assistant professor of global health at Amsterdam UMC, said. “For example, sudden heavy rain can cause sewers to overflow and contaminate water supplies, or increasing temperatures can cause some pathogens to live longer outside the body.”

Side by side headshots of Josh and James
Josh Colston, an epidemiologist with the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health and Dr. James Platts-Mills are leading UVA’s effort in the international consortium. (Contributed photo/Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Researchers want to identify areas most at risk from climate change, allowing those communities and local leaders to develop strategies for addressing these evolving problems.

“We want to get to the stage where we can predict local and national risks and use this evidence to shape policy,” Harris said. “This means understanding where water quality and pathogen surveillance needs to be performed to support communities and governments in prioritizing their limited resources across health and environmental sectors.”

SPRINGS – Supporting Policy Regulations and Interventions to Negate Aggravated Global Diarrheal Disease Due to Future Climate Shocks – officially started Jan. 1. It is a $7.1 million project that spans five years. The project is funded by the European Commission under the Horizon Europe program with Grant Agreement No. 101057554.

The consortium consists of Amsterdam UMC, the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, UVA, the University of Ghana, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Three O’Clock, Aarhus University, the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the University of Naples, the Haydom Lutheran Hospital, Aquatim, the University of Bucharest and the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.

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Media Contact

Josh Barney

UVA Health