Credit: Mosaic

Climate change is turning dehydration into a deadly epidemic

Instead of his usual fare of nephrology and diabetes papers, Johnson began to pore over global maps of climate and solar radiation. The rise in average temperatures over the last few years in Central America had been incremental, but the number of extreme events had gone up disproportionately. “And, by gosh, the areas that have the highest solar radiation and heatwaves are overlapping the places right where the epidemics are.”

He contacted climate experts at the nearby National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. They verified and finessed his original discovery, and the team published an assessment report in May 2016, which suggested a connection between climate change and the epidemic. Johnson says it “may well be one of the first epidemics because of global warming”.

Climate change brings dire predictions of extreme weather and sea-level rise in the future, but it is affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations right now, he says. And although heat exposure can affect the body in many ways, our kidneys are in the first line of attack, as their role is to keep electrolytes within the normal range and blood volume stable. “We predict the kidney is going to be one of the prime targets as heat increases.”

Jane Palmer in Mosaic.