The amount of rainfall can be directly linked to brain infections in children in Uganda, new research in the Journal of Neurosurgery Pediatrics has found. It is the first study to demonstrates that climate can be the reason for a neurosurgical condition, hydrocephalus.
Literally meaning “water on the brain,” hydrocephalus results when fluid that is supposed to be within the brain instead builds up around it. The result is brain swelling which, if left untreated, can cause brain damage, including impaired cognitive and physical development and even death. Hydrocephalus is the “most common need for a child to require neurosurgery around the world,” says one of the study‘s authors, Steven J. Schiff, the director of the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering.
For the past 25 years in Uganda, levels of rainfall have decreased in the spring and summer, threatening the country’s future food production, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Meanwhile, temperatures have been rising since the 1980s, with a potentially detrimental effect on the country’s coffee production. The rapid growth in Uganda’s population and an expansion of farming (and in a climate that has become drier and warmer) have strained the country’s resources.
Scientists Show Climate Connected to Brain Infection in Newborns
For the study, Schiff and Benjamin C. Warf, a neurology professor from Harvard Medical School, studied 696 infants who had been diagnosed with hydrocephalus between the years 2000 and 2005. More than 100,000 cases of post-infectious hydrocephalus are estimated to occur in a single year in sub-Saharan Africa.
Schiff, Warf and their colleagues made a crucial observation linking the cases of hydrocephalus to neonatal sepsis, a blood infection in the first four weeks of life. Some three or four months after a baby with neonatal sepsis was seen at a medical clinic in east Africa, he or she was often brought back with a rapidly growing head, a sign of hydrocephalus.
In addition, the researchers looked at localized rainfall data between 2000 and 2005 from satellites belonging to NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and noted that different kinds of bacteria associated with hydrocephalus occur at different seasons of the year. This last observation was key as rainfall occurs in different amounts at different times of the year in Uganda. The country has two peak rainy seasons in the spring and the fall; between those periods, rainfall is at intermediate levels of about six inches per month.
The researchers noted that, when there was a higher amount of rain, bacterial infections were more likely to be quenched. Indeed, cases of hydrocephalus increased in Uganda before and after –between– the rainy seasons, when there were smaller amounts of rain. The level of moisture indeed “affects the number of cases of hydrocephalus” in Uganda, the scientists wrote, showing that ”environmental conditions affect conditions supporting bacterial growth.”
Specifically, the changing amounts of rainfall can be linked to the risk of a newborn contacting neonatal sepsis and then, hydrocephalus. As Schiff underscores,
“Hydrocephalus is the first major neurosurgical condition linked to climate. This means that a substantial component of these cases are almost certainly driven from the environmental conditions, and that means they are potentially preventable if we understand the routes and mechanisms of infection better.”
When treated in time, some children can recover from hydrocephalus. One of my best students (he is now pre-med with a deep interest in biology) had hydrocephalus when he was young. It is all the more urgent to understand why cases of hydrocephalus occur in sub-Saharan African, to make sure children get the treatment they need and to keep working to curb climate change around the globe. Our health and our children are being affected by a drier, warmer world.
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