Aswan scorpions draw attention to health risks associated with climate change

Climate change is "the greatest health threat facing humanity" as described by the World Health Organization last October, as it is expected  to cause an additional 250,000 deaths each year.
Climate change is "the greatest health threat facing humanity" as described by the World Health Organization last October, as it is expected  to cause an additional 250,000 deaths each year.

In a quiet hour on the evening of Friday, 12 November, Bataa Abdullah, 59, finished preparing dinner to eat with her daughters and grandchildren. She carried the dishes and was about to sit down. Suddenly, floods hit the brick and cement house. One of the walls of the house fell, mixing with dust and snow.  “I felt that the High Dam exploded in my house,” Bataa said, as she recalled the frightening scene. 

Bataa lives with her family in Ezbet El Furn in Aswan, Egypt. She had spent years in this home and watching it collapse due to floods was not something she ever expected to see. When the floods hit her house, the walls began to fall, and she ran in fear to save the children.  The neighbors broke into her house to help them. Just as she was coming out of the water carrying two of her grandchildren, she felt a painful sting in her leg. A large scorpion had bit her. 

This was the day when unusually violent rains hit some areas in the Egyptian governorate of Aswan. Not only did the rains lead to demolition of homes and the destruction of people’s belongings, it also caused health risks to the population as they swept dozens of scorpions from their hideouts—503 scorpion bites were recorded, according to the data of the Egyption Ministry of Health which provided a stockpile of 3,350 doses of serum. 

Scorpion stings can cause serious complications, as the flow of poison in the body is accompanied by a storm of adrenaline. This results in a severe rise in blood pressure, leading to dangerous effects on the heart and lung. Besides this, the excruciating pain that the patient suffers from may not respond to strong painkillers, according to Dr. Mohie Al-Masry, Clinical Toxicology professor at the Faculty of Medicine, Ain Shams University, in statements made to “Scientific American”. 

In Aswan, climate change caused torrential rains which caused landslides. With that came buried scorpions, according to Mahmoud Shaheen, Director of the Center for Analysis and Forecasting at the Egyptian Meteorological Authority, as told to “Scientific American”. 

After the floods, Ministry of Health workers took samples from some citizens to get tested for malaria as a preventive measure. They also organized campaigns to kill scorpions and insects in the affected areas and mountainous places using pesticides, according to Marwa Mahmoud, director of the Department of Endemic Diseases at the Egyptian Health Directorate in Aswan. 

Photo credit: Abdalla Salah

Climate change is “the greatest health threat facing humanity” 

Climate change is “the greatest health threat facing humanity” as described by the World Health Organization last October, as it is expected  to cause an additional 250,000 deaths each year. The causes of these deaths would include malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. The costs that it would add to health are estimated between $2 to $4 billion annually by 2030. 

In general, climate change affects the basic elements of health, which are clean air, clean water, food, housing and protection from disease. It causes five major risks identified by the World Health Organization— malnutrition as a result of food insecurity and damage to agriculture from high heat, drought and floods; injuries and deaths caused by storms and floods; the spread of diseases such as cholera and diarrhea; heat waves that raise disease and death rates, especially among the elderly; and the change in the geographical distribution of insects that transmit infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue due to changing temperatures and rainfall patterns. 

Recently, the number of disease-carrying insects has increased and spread unusually, which has increased human infections. Climate change is accompanied by a rise in temperature that has increased the speed of the life cycle of insects in its three stages —egg, larva and pupa formation—  causing eggs to hatch at a faster rate than usual. 

At the same time, insects have undergone mutations that make them resistant to weather conditions, and their numbers tend to increase. This causes an imbalance in the ecosystem, according to Engineer Ayman Abdel Halim, Director of the Department of Vector Control in Cairo, affiliated with the Ministry of Health, in his statements to “Scientific American”. 

Egypt applies several precautionary measures, according to Abdel Halim, as the country examines goods coming from abroad, counts the breeding places of insects, combats them with pesticides, and engages in “insect surveillance” to determine the extent of the epidemic of these insects. 

The developing countries are the most affected. All facts indicate that climate change is an unfair global crisis, as ten developed countries contribute to more than two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions, but the developing and the poorest countries in the world bear the greatest impact of climate change. Also, the health risks of climate change are increasing in these countries in light of the weak health infrastructure, increased disasters, and lack of funding. 

Between 1970 and 2020, climate change caused two million deaths globally, according to the Meteorological Organization’s Atlas of Deaths and Loss Caused by Extreme Events. 91% of these deaths were in developing countries. 

At the same time, these countries have suffered from the spread of diseases sensitive to climate change. The latest global malaria report showed that the African region had the largest share of the disease burden. Also, diarrhea is widespread in developing countries, and is transmitted mainly through water contaminated with feces, and kills 1,400 children every day around the world. More than half of these deaths  are due to unsafe water for drinking, and poor hygiene and sanitation. 

The Rippling Effects to Health 

Climate change has also been a major threat to people’s food and lives in the Middle East and North Africa, where hunger has increased by 91.1% compared to twenty years ago. The number of people impacted by hunger reached 69 million last year, according to a new report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Low- and middle-income countries had the largest share of air pollution deaths, at 91% of the total 4.2 million premature deaths globally in 2016. Most of these deaths  were concentrated in the Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions. 

In the same context, heat stress was one of the most prominent health effects. A recent study published in “Nature” last May found that climate change was responsible for about 37% of heat-related deaths between 1991 and 2018. This indicates an urgent need for adaptation and mitigation strategies to reduce the public health impacts of climate change. 

The state of climate finance for health has not changed significantly compared to two years ago. The World Health Organization surveyed 101 countries and found that half of the countries had developed a national plan on health and climate change. But, 60% of them, WHO found, had limited allocation of human and financial resources to deal with the risks of heat stress, injury and death from extreme weather events and diseases transmitted by food, water, and insects. 

In the same context, a study published by “Science Advances” predicted that in the coming years, about two-thirds of the Earth will face a more humid climate. Moreover, the hydrological cycle will intensify in light of global warming, which highlights the need for a flexible infrastructure and the creation of different systems to deal with rainfall. In just six months of 2020, disasters caused by climate change — such as floods, storms and droughts—had affected 51.6 million people in countries already battling the Covid pandemic, and people over 65 were hardest hit by the intolerable temperatures, according to a report in “The Lancet” medical journal. 

This report, published last October, monitored an increase in the number of months in which environmentally suitable conditions exist for malaria transmission by 39% between 2010 and 2019 compared to the period between 1950 and 1959 in densely populated areas. Also, the epidemics like dengue, Zika and chikungunya viruses that are currently affecting populations in Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Africa and southern Asia, have spread further. 

Climate action will reduce deaths 

Deaths caused by climate change are an ongoing concern. Strengthening the health sector’s resilience to climate risks and building low-carbon health systems was one of the most prominent recommendations of the WHO report on climate and health, which was published ahead of the COP26 conference. “Burning fossil fuels is killing us” and killing 13 people every minute around the world, the organization said in the report. Transformative action must be taken in all sectors, including energy, transport, food systems and finance, they emphasized.

There is also hope that reducing pollution levels will reduce the number of air pollution-related deaths worldwide by 80%. Switching to plant-based diets would also reduce global emissions, and could prevent up to 5.1 million deaths annually due to poor diets by 2050, according to the report. Another prediction was made by “C40 Cities” that improving bus network services could prevent 1 million premature deaths each year from exposure to air pollution and traffic accidents, and that using renewable energy for heating and cooling in buildings could prevent another 300,000 premature deaths annually by 2030. 

This story is originally published in Scientific American – Arabic edition

Hadeer El-hadary
Hadeer El-hadary is a freelance Egyptian journalist. She’s written for Egyptian and Arab websites such as Scientific American, Vice Arabia, and Shorouk News. Her work focuses on the topics of environment, climate change, science, health and women’s rights. She’s won an award from the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate for an environmental story about converting date palm seeds into fuel and other products, and another award from Plan International organization and the Ministry of Social Solidarity for a story about discrimination against women in job interviews.