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Climate change 'no excuse' for failure to beat malaria

Perfectly achievable warming or no, say top boffins

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A team of UK and American scientists say that - assuming global warming proceeds in line with mainstream expectation - there is no reason to fear a global malaria outbreak.

It is often suggested that global warming might lead to a reappearance of the deadly disease in areas where it has been wiped out, and that it might spread to regions where it is unknown. (See here, here and here for examples.)

However a team of disease specialists based at Oxford University, the University of Florida and in Kenya have analysed the long battle between humanity and malaria - much of which has occurred against a background of increased temperatures in the generally accepted global records. They say there is no cause for concern.

"The globe warmed over the past century, but the range of malaria contracted substantially," says Andy Tatem of Florida uni. "Warming isn't the only factor that affects malaria."

Other and much more powerful factors have included pesticides, improved medical techniques, use of treated insect nets to protect beds, and economic development which has seen populations move off the land and thus run less risk of mosquito bites.

In particular the pesticide DDT is generally credited with wiping out malaria across 24 countries in the 1950s and 60s, though it is nowadays banned as it has undesirable side effects.

"There is no one tale that seems to determine the story globally," Tatem said. "If we had to choose one thing, we would guess economic development" as the primary factor. However Tatem adds that this is "kind of a cop out" as it may be reduced malaria rates which kickstart economic development rather than the other way round.

Whatever the relative strength of the various anti-malaria factors in play, Tatem and his colleagues say that they are collectively much stronger than any boost that foreseeable global warming could give the disease.

Simon Hay of Oxford states bluntly that public health officials and international organisations had better not try to excuse any failure to control malaria by blaming global warming.

"The international community has an unprecedented opportunity to relieve this burden with existing interventions," he says. "Any failure in meeting this challenge will be very difficult to attribute to climate change."

The scientists' research tends to make global warming less scary than it was, so it will offer some comfort, if not to outright deniers, then to the less hardline sceptics who would argue that climate change may well be happening but that its dangers are exaggerated.

The allied boffins' paper is the cover article in the latest edition of hefty science mag Nature. It can be read by subscribers here. ®

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