What is the impact of flood exposure on population health in Sub-Saharan Africa? Friederike Suhr investigated the current state of evidence in her bachelor thesis and won the 2022 Young Scientist Award for Epidemiology from the German Association for Medical Informatics, Biometry and Epidemiology (GMDS). Now she is going to Oxford as a Junior Visiting Scholar.
Congratulations on your award from the GMDS for your bachelor thesis! What was the topic of your thesis?
I investigated how floods impact population health in Sub-Saharan Africa via a systematic review. I focused on quantitative studies, synthesizing and assessing the current state of research. My thesis looks at a total of ten studies, nine of which point to an increased susceptibility to diseases such as malaria and cholera after flood exposure.
What conclusion did you reach?
Among other things, the results show that a substantial amount of research is still needed to improve our understanding of the health risks associated with floods. It is therefore also interesting to look at what I didn't find in my systematic review: Studies which concentrate on undernutrition, malnutrition, or mental health in connection with floods. Furthermore, there are far too few long-term studies to be found.
Why is that?
I assume focus is placed more on droughts, especially regarding undernutrition and malnutrition, and less on floods. This is alarming, given the climate forecasts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the effects of floods on food security, in a region in which much of the population directly depends on agriculture. An additional factor is that many sub-Saharan African countries’ disaster preparedness is not well established. One reason for the absence of studies on mental health could also be a general lack of data on the topic.
Sub-Saharan Africa and flooding aren't necessarily two things we would immediately associate with one another…
That's right, we might first think of droughts. But floods and droughts can be two sides of the same coin. Floods, combined with population growth, urbanization and unplanned infrastructure, already present major challenges to cities such as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania today.
Germany has experienced several flooding disasters in recent years as well.
That's cause for great concern and makes the consequences of extreme weather events for human health even more visible. It really makes me reflect when I think about the fact that vulnerability to extreme weather events is disproportionately higher in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the economic resources are at the same time much weaker and the health care systems are considerably more fragile and already under stress due to diseases like HIV and malaria. There's a much larger underlying issue here: Africa's historically low contribution to climate change on the one hand, and its vulnerability to the consequences of climate change on the other.
As a young person and scientist, don't you lose your optimism looking at these developments?
There are many negative developments. Climate change is one of them and is a threat which demands urgent action. But there are also many positive developments. It ultimately depends on the time frame you're looking at. I think it's important not to forget the long-term, positive trends. For example, the last few decades have also seen enormous progress in terms of access to health care and education. There are plenty of reasons to stay optimistic.
Optimism and enthusiasm are of course essential to your work as a researcher…
Yes, that certainly helps when it comes to staying motivated. I also get a lot of support from the environment at TUM. Janina Steinert, who holds the Professorship for Global Health at the TUM School of Social Sciences & Technology, is an outstanding source of scientific guidance for me. She is and has always been available to me for advice and support.
What brought you to TUM from a small town near Mainz?
I was drawn to the interdisciplinary approach at TUM. As early as in the bachelor's program I was able to explore other areas, which I thought was great. For example, I attended courses at the Department of Informatics in R programming and data analysis, something I'm still greatly benefitting from today. I also like the application-oriented learning at TUM. We don't only study for exams, we can also try things out in projects and develop our own ideas. I also think it's fantastic that we have such an excellent student/faculty ratio at the School of Social Sciences & Technology, the professors are always accessible and take a lot of time for us.
And now in October you'll be heading for Oxford for three months as a Junior Visiting Scholar.
That's right! There I'll have the opportunity to dive even deeper into my bachelor's thesis topic. During my research stay in the "Climate Econometrics" group I'll concentrate on econometric methods for further research into the impacts that extreme weather events have on population health. I'm especially happy to have already met two "buddies" here at TUM who will be at Oxford at the same time. That already makes me feel like I'll be at home!