East Africa: Is deforestation hampering the fight against malaria?

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The fight against malaria in East Africa is stalling. A number of financial, environmental and human-caused factors contribute to rising death rates from the disease in parts of the region, which remains one of the worst regions in the world.

One of these factors, which is regularly attributed to the spread of malaria, is deforestation. Various studies over the last decade suggest the destruction of forests in malaria-prone environments significantly increases prevalence of the disease. While East Africa is also one of the worst affected regions in the continent when it comes to deforestation.

So could the fading forests of East Africa be hampering the fight against Malaria in the region?

 

Malaria and deforestation in East Africa

East Africa is one of the worst world’s affected regions by the ongoing threat of malaria. Uganda has the highest rate of malaria cases in the world while Kenya and Ethiopia are also in the top ten of an unfavourable list.

Source: Wordlatlas.com

Malaria deaths are on the rise in Rwanda and Burundi while neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo has the third highest rate of malaria cases in the world.

Moving on to the subject of deforestation: the Congo Basin and East Africa have the highest rates of deforestation in Africa. Of course, this does nothing to prove any kind of link between the two concerns, but various studies have found a stronger connection between them.

 

Links between deforestation and malaria

The suggestion that deforestation intensifies the existence and spread of malaria has been around for more than a decade now, but the number of studies is still relatively low. Despite this, the argument is fairly consistent: that deforestation exacerbates the prevalence of malaria in areas already prone to the disease.

In 2015, research from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at The George Washington University found direct links between deforestation and the breeding habits of disease vectors, including mosquitoes, ticks and fleas.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease, spread by the bite of female Anopheles mosquitoes – prevalent in tropical parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

The 2015 study said:”There is a well-documented, positive association between the increased deforestation of an area and the emergence of zoonotic, vector-borne diseases. Populations living within or near these fragmented forests are at a much higher risk of infection due to increased contact with vectors at forest edges and the reduced biodiversity of the area.”

 

How does deforestation contribute to the spread of malaria?

The prevalence and spread of malaria are largely affected by environmental factors. Female Anopheles mosquitoes need fresh standing water in warm environments to lay their eggs. Deforestation contributes to an improved environment for mosquito breeding in a number of ways:

 

  • By creating pools of water exposed to sunlight
  • Reducing water absorption
  • Reducing the acidity of water pools
  • Creating “tree bowls” where stumps collect fresh water

 

As human activity destroys more forests, the wastelands left behind create improved breeding grounds for mosquitoes – this much is widely accepted. And many of the world’s worst-affected regions by deforestation struggle in the fight against malaria. However, proving a direct causation between the two remains difficult, because of so many other factors that contribute to the prevalence and spread of malaria.

 

What other factors are there in the spread of malaria?

One of the most concerning factors in the spread of malaria is an apparent resistance to drugs, repellents and insecticides that seems to be growing. These have been the most effective weapons in the fight against malaria but mosquitos – one of the longest-surviving non-aquatic species know to man – has a long history of adapting for survival.

Aside from developing a resistance to drugs and insecticides, the mosquito’s ability to rapidly evolve is beating a scientific process known as gene editing, which modifies genes in vector animals to prevent the spread of diseases. There’s a reason this pest has managed to survive for so long.

Other factors in the spread of malaria include climate change – particularly as temperatures rise in tropical regions. Population growth is another concern, too. The simple fact is, the more people squeezed into a single space, the more there are to infect. A single infected mosquito can pass malaria on to as many as 100 people while each infected person then gives the disease to any further mosquitoes that bite them.

In congested living spaces, this makes it incredibly easy for an outbreak to occur. Sadly, all of these contributing factors are ongoing problems for the East African region – including the rate of deforestation. Which makes for an increasingly complicated battle against malaria in the region.

 

Featured image: Public domain.

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.