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Changing Planet: Infectious Diseases Classroom Activity

Students will be introduced to the topic of infectious diseases. While learning about how infectious diseases spread, they will learn how climate change is affecting the impact of these diseases. Materials:

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Developed by NESTA/Windows to the Universe team members Jennifer Bergman, Missy Holzer and Roberta Johnson. Contains items from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory and the Center for Disease Control.
Grade level:
Grades 8-10
Part I - 60 minutes (Movie, Powerpoint presentation, class discussion, student worksheet)
Part II - 120 minutes (60 minutes student research and writing, at least 60 minutes "Cholera Case Study")
Student Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will learn what vector-borne diseases are.
  • Students will learn that global climate change is having an effect on the spread of infectious diseases.
  • Students will come away with an appreciation of the complexity of the issue of infectious diseases - and see how it crosses the social, economic, technological and political spectrums.
Lesson format:
Class discussion (Powerpoint presentation provided), student worksheet, Cholera Case Study

National Standards Addressed:

  • 5-8: Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry
  • 5-8: Content Standard C: Populations and Ecosystems
  • 5-8: Content Standard C: Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
  • 5-8: Content Standard F: Populations, Resources, and Environments
  • All levels: History and Nature of Science: Science as a Human Endeavor, Nature of Science, History of Science
  • All levels: Science and Technology Standard: Understanding about Science and Technology
  • All levels: Science in Personal and Social Perspective Standard
  • All levels: Assessment Standard B: The Ability to Communicate Effectively about Science


Part I

1. Print student worksheet - Part I (one worksheet/student). Have students complete page one for homework before starting this lesson. It assesses what they know about infectious diseases already. It also has them collect information from the generation of their parents and grandparents.

2. For background information on infectious diseases, watch Changing Planet: Infectious Diseases. (This movie is linked on the first slide of the Powerpoint presentation). Also explore these topics on the Windows to the Universe website at the links listed below.

3. Use the Powerpoint presentation to facilitate class discussion. Collect class data to fill in the table on slide three (this is the table from student homework). Have students fill out the collective chart for their class and take a class poll and write the number of cases in the column "Infectious Diseases I've Had". For instance, if 24 students have had colds, note this as colds (24), and if 13 students have had ear infections, note this as ear infections (13) in that column. Other common childhood infectious diseases are chicken pox, strep throat, influenza, bronchitis and tonsilitis. Infectious diseases experienced by parents and grandparents might be measles, polio, mumps, rubella, dysentery, diptheria, pertussis and scarlet fever. Infectious diseases students might have heard about include anthrax, smallpox, SARS, West Nile encephalitis, Avian/H1N1 flu, Lyme disease, AIDS, malaria, cholera, salmonellosis, tuberculosis and plague. Remind students that there are many medical conditions (like broken bones) or even diseases (cancer and diabetes) that are not infectious.

4. Continue by explaining that diseases they have experienced are not the same as the diseases their parents experienced or their grandparents experienced. This shows that thanks to research, education, vaccinations, and social awareness and involvement, we have progressed in fighting infectious diseases in humans. This topic can be heavy and somewhat alarming, so it's important to make this point!

5. Show slides four through nine and explain to students what a vector is, what a vector-borne disease is and go into detail about four diseases thought to be affected by warming climate. (Background information is provided below).

6. Have students complete student worksheet - Part I.

Part II

1. For Part II, have students break into ten groups (size of the group will depend on your class size, e.g., for a class of 30 students, create 10 groups of three students each).

2. Randomly assign one of the following to each group:
-World Health Organization (who has $200 million to spend on world cholera programs)
-Basic science research community
-Clinical research community
-Public health organization #1 - Worldwide focus
-Public health organization #2 - Haiti
-Aid Organization focused on shelter, food, and water in Haiti
-Third World education projects
-Government of Haiti - Health care system
-Government of Haiti - Water treatment plants
-United Nations
The nine groups will try to secure funding for their group from the WHO group by championing their cause.

3. Print and copy the student worksheet - Part II (one for each student). Have students work together in their groups to research their groups viewpoint (computers with internet or a library would be very helpful at this point). Give them one class period for research and have them fill out the student worksheet in preparation for the debate that will take place to secure funding for their group. If they are unfinished, have students finish debate preparation for homework.

4. On day of the debate, arrange classroom with chairs/tables in a circle so all parties can see each other. Have teams create name tags saying their group name and place on their tables in front of them. Give each group interested in securing funding the chance to read their 2-minute opening argument. Cut the group's spokesperson off right at 2-minutes to allow other teams to have a chance to give their arguments. Now allow the WHO team chairperson to lead a discussion or debate amongst the groups - any group member might speak, ask questions of the other groups or argue their cause once recognized by the chairperson. The chairperson must move quickly around the room so that all arguments are heard.

5. Ten minutes to the end of the class, give the WHO group 5 minutes to decide their allocations of funding. Their decision must be unanimous. Give the WHO group 5 minutes to present their funding decisions (this might also be done the next day if the WHO needs more time or would like to put together a Powerpoint slide or posterboard stating their decisions). It might also be done the next day, if you would like the groups to be able to "appeal" and fight for their cause once more in a group discussion. Give the WHO one more chance to alter their funding decisions to come up with a final decision.

6. Have students finish filling out their student worksheets for Part II during class or for homework.


Assess student abilities to take notes, answer questions about the presentation and data presented on student worksheet, work together as a team, communicate convincing arguments, as well as apply learned information to make solid deductions about the future implications of global warming on infectious diseases.


The following activities would make great extensions to this activity:

NOAA's Climate Change and Infectious Diseases

Science on a Sphere - Satellite Imagery and Epidemiology

Understanding the Epidemiologic Triangle through Infectious Disease

Climate Change and Disease - WWF Lesson


Vector-borne diseases are transmitted to humans by another infected animal. Well-recognized disease-carrying creatures are mosquitos, ticks, and flies, but even worms, snails, bats, beaver, horses, pigs, birds, copepods and rabbits can carry disease. These creatures that carry and transmit diseases are known as vectors. Different vectors carry different diseases such as malaria, dengue, African sleeping sickness, and yellow fever.

The following diseases are highlighted in the Powerpoint presentation (all but Cholera are vector-borne diseases):
Malaria is an infectious disease caused by a protist from the Genus Plasmodium. It occurs throughout the world in tropical regions, and is spread exclusively by mosquitoes. There is no good vaccine to prevent malaria, and treatment of infections with drugs is possible but often difficult because the Plasmodium organisms quickly become resistant. Malaria kills roughly a million people every year, and is thought to have caused half of all human deaths throughout history. As climate change brings longer wet seasons to different parts of the world, conditions for mosquito growth in many areas improve, and this is allowing malaria to spread into new areas and become more of a problem in areas where it had previously been brought under control.

Cholera is a diarrheal disease caused by a bacterium named Vibrio cholerae. It is transmitted when people consume contaminated food or water, and so occurs throughout the world wherever unsafe eating/drinking conditions exist. It is a severe disease, and although there is a vaccine available and the disease can be treated with antibiotics and rehydration, Cholera kills several hundred thousand people per year. In areas like Haiti, where weather or disaster displace people from their normal living conditions into situations where drinking water is unsafe, outbreaks of cholera can occur. As climate change makes catastrophic weather events more frequent, cholera is becoming a more prevalent problem, even in areas where it has not been a problem before.

Dengue, also known as breakbone fever, is a disease caused by a virus. It is spread by mosquito, and can range from a manageable illness to a life-threatening one. There is no vaccine and no way to effectively treat infections, so cutting dengue infection rates has largely depended on controlling mosquito populations. As with malaria, climate change is allowing dengue to grow and spread because in many areas it is causing wet conditions that allow mosquitoes to grow more easily.

Schistosomiasis, also called bilharzia or sometimes even snail fever, is a disease caused by a parasitic worm from the Schistosoma genus. It is spread when people come into contact with contaminated water, where the schistosome worm larvae live inside freshwater snails. The worms mature within the snails, and when they emerge from the snail they swim through the water and burrow into any human skin they encounter. Once inside the human, they migrate to the lungs, liver, and kidneys and cause a number of chronic and debiliating symptoms. Schistosomiasis can be treated and prevented by drugs, and by removing standing water where snails can breed. By creating weather conditions in many areas that make standing water more prevanlent, climate change is making it more difficult to control schistosomiasis.

In short, climate change is having a major impact on many infectious diseases. In some cases, warmer and wetter weather is allowing vectors (the insect or animal that spreads a disease) to grow more easily and spread the disease more freely. In other cases, climate change is causing increasingly frequent catastrophic weather events like storms or flooding, and these events drive people from safe living conditions to conditions where diseases like cholera can quickly become a problem. Many of these diseases are difficult to treat or prevent medically, so it is important that we understand how they might be affected by climate change so we can predict and prepare for them.



Last modified April 14, 2011 by Jennifer Bergman.

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