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What We Do Today Impacts Our Society’s Health Tomorrow

Posted on Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Aniruddha Deshpande, a second-year ARCS Atlanta Scholar, is a student of epidemiology at Emory University working to discover the health impacts of climate change. As the Earth gets warmer, it’s more than melting glaciers and untamed wildfires. It’s also about the future of our society’s health. Ani is building quantitative models that predict future climate change scenarios so humanity can be prepared for its effects, specifically infectious diseases spreading due to climate change.

Ani studies what he calls “two major, very broad classifications of these types of diseases”. One originates from the environment and does not have a human-to-human component. The example he gives is Valley Fever in California and the Southwest. It’s a fungus that thrives in dry, hot environments. As the Earth heats up and creates more of these climates, the fungus spreads with it. Already, he has seen the same fungus in Eastern Washington where they also have dry conditions. “So, we know this fungus is capable of being introduced in new regions. That’s a potential health impact,” he explains.

“Whereas then there are diseases that have a human-to-human transmission component," Ani says, explaining the other classification. “So not only can you get it from the environment or other people, but once you’re affected, you’re going to spread it to others. And it may seem like a small difference but that one difference creates a massive implication for how we can mathematically quantify the diseases."

Ani is studying one environmental disease and two different diseases that spread from person to person, one respiratory disease and the other enteric. The goal of his PhD is to use his models to better understand how what humans are doing today to the climate will impact our society’s health tomorrow. By knowing this impact, the government and the health system can better prepare for the future.

For example, Ani shares, “As we saw in the pandemic, our health system was completely overwhelmed and things were falling apart. And I think climate change is going to bring some equal levels of shock to the system.”

One of the health impacts Ani is looking into is vaccines. “What if you suddenly introduce a lot more people into the same city from rural areas?” he asks. He explains changes in population sizes and structure over time will affect the transmission of these diseases and how it might affect our ability to keep up with the disease. “You might see a health system that needs a lot more resources to keep up with it, especially for these vaccine-preventable diseases,” he answered.

Ani is grateful for the ARCS Scholar Award because with it, he was able to confidently pursue his PhD, a feeling many PhD students struggle with. “A lot of PhD students, if they don’t have support like ARCS, they have to compromise the vision of their PhD to a funded project or by getting a part-time job. ARCS gave me unrestricted financial support to stick to my original vision to study climate and infectious disease,” he says.

With his unrestricted funds, he was able to spend time in Vienna, Austria last summer for The Young Summer Scientist Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, an organization leading the way in studying the impact of climate change. “With the support from ARCS, I was able to go there and spend three months in Vienna and interact with leaders from the field and other PhD students”, he shares.

“ARCS means being able to carry out my vision and it’s why I did my PhD. Without it, it would be a compromised experience,” Ani concluded.