Climate Change and Disease: Ending with a Whimper

"This is the way the world ends," T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem, The Hollow Men. "Not with a bang, but a whimper."

Global Warming ThermometerAnd so global warming proceeds, taking an inch here, an unknown Wyoming glacier there, moving trees slowly uphill and polar ice slowly into the ocean, until one day we wake up and ask ourselves how we missed all the little signs that things were going awry.

Global warming brings another creeping menace; disease. Like warming, disease comes slowly, taking a child here, an old man there until - almost before we realize it - a simple illness has become a pandemic, and the ones we love are dying around us.

The bugs who hate us love the added warmth. They thrive in that extra one to five degrees of rising temperature fostered by climate change. Their potential to wreak havoc on the planet - on every species from man to mice - is as great a threat to survival as a series of well-placed nuclear bombs, and just as decisive.  

This danger is highlighted by the recent Mississippi flooding. People returning to their homes come in contact with E. coli, giardia, and cryptosporidia, pathogens that cause severe and sometimes debilitating diarrhea. This polluted, standing water, having come in contact with sewage, floating animal carcasses and soil contaminants, can also carry cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery. Summer temperatures, and injuries sustained during the deluge, open the floodgates to a host of bacterial illnesses. Another concern is mold, a form of coenocytic organism that, once it gets in, is almost impossible to eradicate and causes a range of problems from simple allergic reactions to intestinal problems and, on rare occasions, anaphylactic shock.

Iowa and Missouri (and Louisiana, in the aftermath of Katrina) have been spared serious outbreaks. American health care is so far up to the challenge. In Myanmar, after a catastrophic tsunami wiped the Irrawaddy Delta clean, the floating bodies created a situation where outbreaks of cholera, malaria and dengue fever could have decimated the survivors. Because the government was so reclusive and tight-lipped - refusing foreign aid even at the risk of its citizens - the Western world will never know how bad the situation got, but news leaks indicate a scenario out of hell.  

As temperatures rise globally, Western civilization faces similar threats. In the U.S., health authorities warn that an incurable, mosquito-borne disease, dengue fever, could spread from subtropical regions to the North American continent. The problem is already reaching epidemic proportions along the U.S.-Mexico border and in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory currently experiencing a boom in land sales to wealthy Americans. Expect travel to and from these areas to up the odds of an outbreak over any summer, including this one, which sees temperatures so high in California the governor has been forced to declare a heat emergency.

mosquitoOf greater concern at the moment, though, is a new strain of West Nile virus. Once confined by typical winters, the virus is now spreading earlier and more rapidly across the southern tier of U.S. states. In 2007, the virus infected about 175,000 people, causing 35,000 cases of fever and killing 117. This new strain also caused more than 1,200 cases of viral aseptic encephalitis and meningitis, swellings of the brain and spinal cord that are peripheral illnesses associated with West Nile. This new strain, which has completely overtaken the original, may, according to The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), soon get worse even in the North, where hotter summers facilitate its spread.

Other diseases also moving north with warming climates. Chagas disease, a tropical parasite, is endemic to South America, but warmer and longer summers may facilitate its spread up, and into, states like Louisiana, Missouri, Georgia and even Tennessee. Chagas disease is not a killer, but it impacts childhood development, including mental development, and can cause hearing loss and even heart disease. Dr. Peter Hotez, of George Washington University, sees the threat of Chagas as high precisely because it is not a killer disease. This will allow it to pass easily and largely unnoticed among poorer populations in the American southland who can't afford early diagnosis and treatment. Hotez also expresses concern about dengue fever, another tropical disease that can sometimes cause a deadly hemorrhagic fever, like the outbreaks reported in Texas.

The CDC - whose recent study linking global warming and disease was so edited by the Bush administration that it no longer makes sense - is not the only one taking notice of this potential for disaster. The Center for American Progress, an American liberal political policy research and advocacy organization, describes a sequence of events surrounding global warming that could eliminate entire populations, including large portions of the developed world. Citing worsening air pollution (a prime cause of respiratory illness and a trigger for heart failure), vector-borne diseases, less reliable food production, more flooding, and more frequent and deadly wildfires, the authors, Daniel J. Weiss and Robin Pam, note that World Health Organization figures already show more than 150,000 deaths per year from climate change, and the planet has only warmed about one and one half degrees. What happens, they ask, when we reach five, or even 10, degrees hotter?

Across the pond, Dr Hugh Montgomery, the director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London, reflects back on the heat wave of 2003 that killed up to 35,000 people in Europe. He likens global warming to each of us moving south at a rate of 4 miles a year, and notes with alarm that every one degree rise in temperature means 75 deaths.

"By the 2080s, we can expect to see weather like that of August 2003 every year. This is bad news." Montgomery notes with typical British reserve.

Bad news doesn't even begin to describe the possibilities, and the threat is very real. Currently, 73 countries and more than 50 international organizations are participating in a scientific observation and prediction organization called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. It's an awkward name, but the scientists are dedicated to predicting, and hopefully preventing, the ravages of diseases induced by global warming before they occur. Using data on weather, population change, transportation, migration and epidemiology, and factoring in changes in vegetation, the scientists tackle the odd phenomena before they become devastating disease vectors.

A typical example would be the discovery of anaphylactic shock in Alaska. Investigators traced it to a sub-species of bee that hibernates in damp soil. The insect is not native to the area, but moved there as global warming changed its range, and people in the area weren't prepared for the sting. In Norway, giardia has appeared as a result of beavers (who carry the disease) moving into territory once the domain of reindeer.

Global warming doesn't just exacerbate human diseases. It does the same in the plant and animal worlds. Forests in northern climates, from Alaska to Oregon, are dying off as warmer temperatures create heat stress for trees accustomed to a cooler climate. The recent wildfire in Big Sur, California, is a direct result of Sudden Oak Death (first diagnosed in 1995) which rendered acres of viable oaks to tinder waiting for a lightning match. In the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, trees are turning red and dying from the top down. This blight extends from northern Canada to central Oregon, and scientists have ruled out any cause but global warming. This positive feedback loop - dying forests feeding carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere through decay or fire - may already be out of control. 

In Europe, bluetongue disease - previously confined to Africa and the Middle East - is spreading. First appearing in the Netherlands in 2006, this midge-spread new strain first survived winter (a heretofore unheard of phenomenon) and then traveled to eastern England in 2007, blown across the Channel from Belgium. To date, almost 2 million sheep have died, and the new strain is also killing cattle.

mooseHuman disease is spread by travel, either of people or the objects and foods they eat. Animals and plants, however, don't travel, yet they seem to be getting sicker, according to Richard Ostfeld of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. Diseases that don't attack humans are spreading like wildfire in these ecosystems, taking out everything from Hawaiian mountain birds to moose and elk.

The cause is clearly climate change, say the researchers. Cold winters, which normally kill off ticks and other animal parasites, just aren't doing the job anymore. In addition, hotter summers put these animal populations - which have not yet evolved to meet rising temperatures - under tremendous stress, weakening their ability to fight off disease. Some ecologists are actually predicting the extinction of Minnesota's moose. Others are more cautious, but admit the potential. .

"One major catastrophic non-predictable event could tip things." Agrees Texas Tech researcher Warren Ballard.

The same might be said for humans.

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  • Posted on July 20, 2008. Listed in:

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