Cases of diseases linked to mosquitoes, ticks and fleas tripled in the US between 2004 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
People around the world are living longer than they did half a century ago. However, climate change threatens to change everything. Across the planet, animals – and the diseases they carry – are changing as they try to adapt to a planet in ‘upheaval’. And they’re not the only ones: Ticks, mosquitoes, bacteria, algae, and even fungi are moving, shifting or expanding their historical ranges, to adapt to climate conditions that are evolving at an unprecedented rate.
Deforestation, mining, agriculture and urban development are chipping away at the planet’s remaining wild areas, contributing to the loss of biodiversity at a rate unprecedented in human history. The populations of the species, on which man relies for his sustenance, are decreasing and being “pushed” into smaller and smaller pieces of habitat. Meanwhile, the number of people experiencing the extreme effects of global warming continues to rise. Climate change is displacing an estimated 20 million people each year, people in need of housing, medical care, food and other essentials, putting a strain on already “fragile” systems.
All these factors create, unfortunately, conditions that favor diseases. Old and new diseases are becoming more and more common and are even appearing in places they have never been found before. Researchers are beginning to piece together a patchwork of evidence that sheds light on the dire threat that climate-related diseases pose to human health today—and the range of risks that lie ahead. Research shows that climate change is affecting the spread of disease.
To escape the rising temperatures in their natural ranges, animals begin to move to higher, colder altitudes, bringing disease with them. This poses a threat to the people living in these areas and also leads to dangerous mixes between newly introduced animals and existing species. Bird flu, for example, spreads more easily among wild animals as rising seas and other factors push nesting bird species inland, where they are more likely to encounter other species.
When we have a warmer winter and milder autumn, this allows the vectors of pathogens – ticks, mosquitoes and fleas, for example – to remain active for a longer period of the year. The Northeastern US has seen a massive increase in the ticks that carry Lyme disease over the past decade, with warmer winters playing a key role.
Irregular weather conditions, such as periods of extreme drought and flood, create conditions for the spread of disease. Cholera, a water-borne bacterium, thrives during the monsoon season in South Asian countries, when floods contaminate drinking water, especially in places that lack quality sanitation infrastructure. Valley fever thrives, for example, during rainy seasons.
Cases of diseases linked to mosquitoes, ticks and fleas tripled in the US between 2004 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The problem is getting worse as time goes by and already the World Health Organization is sounding the alarm.
The world has the tools it needs—wildlife surveillance networks, vaccines, early warning systems—to mitigate the effects of climate-driven diseases. Some of these tools have already been deployed on a local scale with great effectiveness. What remains to be seen is how quickly governments, NGOs, medical providers, doctors and citizens can work together across borders to develop a global plan of action.
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