When people hear “global warming,” they usually think melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and superstorms. But did you know that global warming also makes it easier for diseases to spread? That’s right – the next plague could be looming on the horizon. And the last one took millions of lives!
Bacteria and parasites thrive in warmer temperatures, making them somewhat seasonal in a certain parts of the world. But not anymore. Longer summers mean longer lifespans. More contagious diseases. And “there [are] A LOT of diseases,” stresses Sonia Altizer, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “Especially in natural systems, where there as a pretty clear signal that either the prevalence or severity of those diseases has increased in response to climate change.”
Altizer is co-author of a recently published study on climate trends over the last decade. She continues:
“So in the arctic, there are parasitic worms that affect muskox and reindeer that are developing faster and becoming more prevalent and expanding their ranges. And then in tropical oceans, like Caribbean coral reefs, there’s a large amount of evidence that has mounted that shows that warming interferes with the symbiosis of corals – makes them more vulnerable to disease and at the same time increases the growth rate of some lethal bacteria.”
So no matter where you live – in a warm climate, or chilly – no one is safe from bacteria. Thankfully, we have studies like Altizer’s to help us prepare for the future.
“Knowing why different pathogens respond differently to climate change is what’s needed to help us predict and ultimately manage disease outbreaks in people and animals and plants,” she says.
Some continents are much more equipped to handle the next plague than others, like North America and Europe, who have “surveillance, vector control, modern sanitation, drugs, and vaccines. [They] can be deployed to prevent outbreaks of a lot of diseases, especially vector borne disease or diarrheal disease that are much more problematic in the developing world. And so these can counter the effects of climate change and make it hard to detect increases in those pathogens,” says Altizer.
“Controlling vectors” refers to controlling parasites like ticks and mosquitos, which have been known to transmit yellow fever and malaria.
In developing countries, a pathogenic outbreak could destroy the agricultural economy. Lost crops. Dead cattle. The livelihoods of farmers and their families are at stake.
How concerned should we be? Well, according to Altizer, the answer isn’t exactly black and white.
“It really depends on the location. Where, when and what pathogen? So I think we’re at a stage now where in the next five to ten years scientists will be able to move towards a predictive framework that will be able to answer questions about where in the world and what pathogens are responding and will continue to respond most strongly to climate change.”
The effects of global warming are unfolding slowly, and should stretch decades, making it crucial to document and analyze data.
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