Link Between Deforestation and Increasing Malaria Rates Across Developing Nations

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Dr. Kelly Austin, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Director of the Health, Medicine, and Society Program, has developed a new study that shows a link between deforestation and increasing malaria rates across developing nations.  Dr. Austin was trained as a development scholar and has been at Lehigh since 2012.  She is interested in understanding and explaining patterns in international development, how nations interact with one another, and different types of globalization processes.  She has a deep interest in how these are expressed through environmental and health inequalities and the nexus between the two.  At Lehigh, Dr. Austin teaches courses related to global health, globalization and the environment, as well as courses on research methods.  Dr. Austin shared her background and research on deforestation and malaria with us and what some of the solutions may be.  Here’s what Dr. Austin told us:

Q1: How did you become interested in the topic of malaria and deforestation?

I first started looking at malaria in my doctoral dissertation at North Carolina State University and I was surprised by how many people did not realize that we have not found a cure for malaria and that there are over 200 million new cases a year.  I quickly realized that malaria is a neglected issue and it is off the radar of a lot of people in the western world.  Many are naive to the impact this disease still has and part of that is because it was eradicated in countries like the United States.  Malaria is the leading cause of death in many nations including in sub saharan Africa, which is where I do a lot of my field work.  

My interest in deforestation actually predates my interest in disease and I think part of the reason for that is my background.  I grew up in California in a beautiful area right near the redwood forest.  I always loved trees and could see and easily learn about the magnitude of the deforestation problem and how it is connected to so many other environmental issues.  I also became interested in deforestation as a development issue.  Deforestation results from human activities and one of those key activities is agriculture.  A big focus of my research for over a decade now has been thinking about the role that our own consumption habits play in creating deforestation in other places.  If you look at deforestation rates in the United States, we are actually reforesting, despite having some of the highest rates of timber consumption and food consumption in the world.  As a result, we are offshoring that environmental cost to other nations.

Q2: How much research has been done on this prior to you?

There have been some studies prior to mine that looked at connections between forest loss and mosquito populations as well as some other studies that looked at malaria rates. Those studies were very narrowly focused epidemiological studies that were conducted in particular areas such as the Peruvian Amazon.  My research adds something to this vein of knowledge by employing a cross national study. I am looking at country level rates of deforestation and malaria.  The question I had when I read these prior studies was, is this a unique relationship that we only see in particular contexts or locales, or is this something we can generalize across countries and regions?  The question had never been framed in this way before.  

Q3:  What drove your research?   

It was a combination of things that really drove my research.  First, coming across some of the prior studies that started to make this association in particular areas helped to drive my research.  Also, the field work I do in Uganda including speaking to people about malaria, hearing about land use changes, and learning about what they perceive as the causes of malaria helped to inspire my research quite a bit.  

Q4: What did you find through your research?

I found that countries that have higher rates of deforestation tend to have higher rates of malaria in following years.  When I interviewed locals in Uganda, they told me they noticed that when they deforest an area to plant crops such as coffee, there tends to be more pooling of water.  When you fell trees to plant crops, less water is absorbed and it tends to be less acidic which is more conducive to mosquito larvae development.  In general, mosquitoes (it varies a little bit between species) like standing water, they like it when pools of water are exposed to sunlight, and they like warmer temperatures.  These are all things we see with deforestation.  

Q5: What was the overall goal of your research?

The overall goal of my research was to see the connection between deforestation and malaria and to establish that this connection is not unique to one particular area.  Rather, it is a relationship that we can see across countries and generalize across regions.  I also wanted to emphasize some of the key drivers of deforestation itself including rural population growth and felling due to agriculture.

Q6: What data did you use and what countries did you look at?

I used data on malaria from the World Health Organization and data on deforestation from the Food and Agriculture Organization.  These data sets are cross national in nature so they are at the country level.  

Q7: What are the next steps and solutions?

I think the big next step is getting people to make more connections between environmental outcomes and immediate human health impacts.  Oftentimes, people study environmental outcomes as an end in themselves and it can be hard to garner interest around environmental issues.  I think it is important, therefore, to make more connections between the environment and immediate human health impacts.  By doing so, we can hopefully garner more concern for environmental issues.

As far as the solutions go, better forest management is a really clear solution.  In addition, it is important to leave some trees rather than taking a sheer plantation agriculture approach and to use more semi shade conditions where some of the large trees are kept.  There also needs to be more areas of protective forest as well as more targeted malaria interventions, prevention, and direction of health resources.  Lastly, we need to recognize how some of our own consumption habits play into this, both in terms of food and timber products.  Some of our food is coming from these areas so we should try to eat more locally, sustainably, and seasonally. We should also reduce demand for timber products or use more sustainable timber products like bamboo.  By taking these steps, we can make a big difference.

For more information about Dr. Austin’s research on malaria and deforestation, check out her recent publication in AIMS Environmental Science, a special issue on The Environmental Determinants of Infectious Diseases.