Let’s work across borders to fight mosquito-borne disease

An Aedes aegypti mosquito, responsible for the spread of Zika, photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz Institute in Recife, Brazil.
An Aedes aegypti mosquito, responsible for the spread of Zika, photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz Institute in Recife, Brazil. AP

Diseases don’t stop at borders. On World Malaria Day, we take note that mosquito-borne diseases pose serious threats around the world. Without continued leadership from the United States, diseases like Zika and malaria will weaken public health throughout the Americas, including in the United States.

The United States has been a leader in advancing global health, but recent policy recommendations will erode efforts to combat these threats. As a public health physician, former policymaker, and president of a comprehensive research university, I find these shifts of growing concern.

First, the United States has proposed drastic cuts to the United Nations, its agencies, and global health programs that are on the front lines of fighting disease. Walking away from these investments not only hurts communities abroad, it puts Americans’ health at risk.

A second move could further affect health in coastal communities, both in the United States and globally. A recent executive order proposes to roll back domestic efforts to combat climate change, even as its environmental and health impacts grow. The people of Miami are sadly aware of the risk of rising sea levels on their homes and businesses. Less understood is climate change’s impact on disease.

A recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that weather extremes contribute to the risk of mosquito-borne illnesses. Our warming planet is exposing more and more people to disease-carrying mosquitoes, which are migrating to higher elevations as temperatures rise. University of Miami Professor Douglas O. Fuller, an expert in remote sensing, is documenting the alarming distribution patterns of mosquitoes across the globe. He observes, “As climate changes and tropical bioclimatic zones shift upslope to replace temperate zones, a lot more people will be exposed to disease.” Read more about this global impact in the university’s Climate Change Special Report, http://climate.miami.edu.

The Americas are increasingly vulnerable as intense climate events stimulate the expansion of the natural habitat for mosquitoes that spread disease. From 2015-2016, a particularly strong El Niño put Colombia in peril: Malaria cases reached 83,356 during this period — more than double than 2014. Last November, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti, and malaria cases reached 21,430 — almost 20 percent more than 2015. This year, El Niño Costero hit Peru, flooding towns and putting more than 672,000 people at risk of dengue, chikungunya, Zika, and malaria.

There is, however, reason for hope. We know that when the international community mobilizes, we see results. In the past 15 years, targeted investments have strengthened health systems for malaria prevention, control, and elimination. Researchers at UM’s Miller School of Medicine have worked to address the spread of mosquitoes in Ecuador and West Africa. From 2000 to 2014, the Americas reduced malaria cases by 67 percent and deaths by 79 percent. We are close to eliminating malaria in the region but, according to the Pan American Health Organization, more than 132 million people remain at risk of mosquito-borne illnesses.

On World Malaria Day, let’s renew our commitment to stamping out malaria in the Americas and controlling other mosquito-borne illnesses. That commitment must involve international cooperation, continued funding for U.N. efforts, and robust partnerships among researchers.

It will require strong action by citizens, communities, and countries to meet the threat of climate change. When it comes to fighting diseases and protecting the public’s health, let’s reach across the borders of nations, just as the mosquitoes do.

Julio Frenk is president of the University of Miami, former minister of health of Mexico, and a current member of the board of directors of the United Nations Foundation.