The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and other climate patterns can have profound impacts on the occurrence of infectious diseases. Because of the key role of water supplies in cholera transmission, a relationship between El Niño events and cholera incidence is highly plausible, and previous research has shown a link between El Niño patterns and cholera in Bangladesh. However, there is little systematic evidence for this link in Africa where the majority of cholera cases and deaths have been reported in recent years. To understand how ENSO affects the geographic distribution of cholera incidence in Africa, we used a hierarchical Bayesian approach to integrate over 17,000 annual observations of cholera incidence from 2000-2014 in over 3,000 unique locations of varying spatial extent, ranging from entire countries to neighborhoods. The resulting maps reflect modeled cholera incidence at a fine spatial resolution using reported counts of cholera cases, key explanatory variables, and a spatially-dependent covariance term. We then examined the potential mechanistic association between ENSO-related changes in cholera incidence and several environmental variables including rainfall.
El Niño profoundly changed the annual geographic distribution of cholera in Africa from 2000-2014, shifting the burden to continental East Africa, where almost 50,000 additional cases occur during El Niño years. Cholera incidence during El Niño years was higher in regions of East Africa with increased rainfall, but incidence was also higher in some areas with decreased rainfall suggesting a complex relationship between rainfall and cholera incidence. Here we show clear evidence for a shift in the distribution of cholera incidence throughout Africa in El Niño and non-El Niño years, likely mediated by El Niño’s impact on local climatic factors. Knowledge of this relationship between cholera and climate patterns coupled with El Niño forecasting could be used to notify countries in Africa when they are likely to see a major shift in their cholera risk.