Well-meant is not necessarily well done

Intervention research investigates strategies to help counter climate change and infectious diseases.

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  • Text: Jan Berndorff
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Till Bärnighausen

The German epidemiologist Professor Dr Till Bärnighausen is the director of the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health at Heidelberg University Hospital. In 2017, he was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship.

Humboldt Professor Till Bärninghausen
Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

The health of the planet, the health of the individual and social justice – these are the three major global challenges facing us in the coming decades, according to Humboldt Professor Till Bärnighausen. And they are all closely connected. “If we use up or destroy the Earth’s natural resources – pollute the air and the water and chop down the forests, for example – that also has a negative impact on our bodily and mental health.” And, of course, a shortage of resources also engenders social problems. However, says Bärnighausen, progress in human health may come at the expense of planetary health when, for instance, better food supplies are achieved by environmentally detrimental intensive agriculture.

In his role as director of the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health (HIGH), Bärnighausen works directly on solutions to these challenges and their interaction. He was recently one of the organisers of a major symposium on climate change and pandemics: climate change is not only responsible for heat, storms and torrential rainfall that pose an immediate threat to our lives; it also indirectly threatens our health by increasing the likelihood of pandemics – such as the spread of exotic mosquitoes in Europe which can transmit dangerous diseases like the West Nile virus, dengue fever or malaria.

Tiger mosquitoes adore Barcelona

In 2005, for example, the first Asian tiger mosquito turned up in Barcelona. In the last few years, there have been outbreaks of Chikungunya fever, which it transmits. Bärnighausen, who is conducting a project there together with his team and local partners, thinks the sewer system could offer a solution. In Barcelona, it partly dates back to Roman times and is an ideal breeding ground for exotic mosquitoes that feel happy as Larry in the warm and humid darkness. “The mosquito offspring thrive in the angular canals where there is often a lot of standing water. They are now supposed to be replaced by curved canals so that the water can drain everywhere.” One method the researchers use to regularly check whether the measures are having the desired effect involves setting up mosquito traps to measure population density.

The government is hesitant to try out new approaches.
Till Bärnighausen, Director of the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health

Bärnighausen’s institute specialises in what is known as intervention research, in which it is a world leader. He would like more institutions to do the same. “Not just in health research but also in politics, development aid and climate protection – everywhere we should constantly be conducting scientifically sound checks to see whether an intervention in a system is really having a positive impact.” Medicine, in which evidence as the basis for progress is now the standard, he notes, was a pioneer in this respect.

In this, Bärnighausen also addresses the German government. “There tends to be a lack of willingness to try out new approaches of the type I encounter in Africa, for example in trying to contain HIV.” The introduction of AIDS self-testing kits, for instance, had proved amazingly effective because many people were too ashamed to consult a doctor.

AI for faster solutions

In order to explore which approaches prove successful, huge volumes of data are required. And to manage these, Bärnighausen works together with his colleague Joacim Rocklöv, the second Humboldt Professor at his institute. The mathematician is an AI specialist and models, amongst other things, the links between climate change and infectious diseases on a computer. Thus, at HIGH, medicine, social science and computer science form something of a symbiotic relationship.

“As a medical historian by training, I know that people in history always found good solutions to the challenges of their times,” says Bärnighausen. “With intervention research and our new technologies, we are now managing that considerably faster and more sustainably.” 

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