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How the climate crisis makes us sicker: Floods, heat and drought compound the risk of nearly 220 infections


An investigation reveals that there is a greater risk of diseases due to situations such as displacement of animals and insects due to global warming. “We are hitting nature, but nature is hitting us back,” says one expert.

By Aria Bendix and Evan Bush —

NBC News

Professor Camilo Mora feels the impacts of climate change in his knees. 

During a visit to his native Colombia in 2014, heavy rains caused the worst flooding his city had seen in decades and increased the mosquito population.

One of these mosquitoes bit Mora, transferring the chikungunya virus to him, making him a patient during an unprecedented outbreak in the region. 

His joints still ache and he blames global warming for his discomfort.

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In a study released Monday, Mora and colleagues at the University of Hawaii reviewed tens of thousands of studies looking at the global impact of climate change on infectious diseases affecting humans.

They found that

nearly 220 infectious diseases

—58% of the total studied—

had become more of a threat due to climate risks. 

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“Systems have evolved over millions of years and now humans have come along and changed things,” Mora said,

“we are hitting nature, but nature is hitting us back.”

The study, which analyzed more than 3,200 scientific reports, is one of the

most comprehensive examinations of the global impact of climate change on diseases worldwide. 

"Only in the recent past of infectious disease research have we really focused on climate change as a driver of infectious disease," said Jessica Leibler, an environmental epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health who was not involved in the research. .

Patients rest on beds set up inside a makeshift dengue ward at a Lahore hospital on October 17, 2021. ARIF ALI / AFP via Getty Images

58% "seems like a really high number," he warned, "but it reflects the reality that

infectious diseases are driven by what happens in our environment."

The research is not without limitations.

Scientists often have difficulty quantifying the extent to which climate change contributes to disease outbreaks, since it is an indirect process. 

Climate hazards also lessened some impacts of infectious diseases.

For 16% of illnesses, these hazards reduced the impact of the ailments or produced mixed results.

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Climate risks bring people and animals closer together

When Mora and his team examined the effects of 10 weather hazards on 375 infectious diseases, they found

more than 1,000 ways climate change stimulated disease transmission.

Rising temperatures were the biggest driver of pathogenic diseases, followed by rainfall, floods, and drought.  

In most cases,

infectious diseases are transmitted to humans through animals

such as mosquitoes, snakes, birds, or rodents. 

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Voles, for example, depend on snow cover for their winter habitat, Mora said.

But the decrease in this has caused these creatures to seek refuge in people's homes, where they have been documented to transmit



“Climate drives habitat change and alteration around the world.

That also brings humans into contact with animal species in ways that we weren't used to historically, or haven't been in the recent past," Leibler said.

"Our recent pandemic is an example to the extent that the leading hypothesis is that bats might have played a role," she added.

Rising temperatures have also increased the habitat ranges of creatures like ticks, fleas and mosquitoes, increasing the footprint of infections like West Nile virus, Zika and dengue.

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"Mosquitoes are obviously the big killers internationally," Leibler said.

Other weather-related illnesses spread directly to humans through food, water, or the air.

Fecal pathogens like

E. coli

or salmonella, for example, can enter drinking water after a flood or hurricane, and rising temperatures can increase their chances of survival.

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“There is a lot of evidence that as temperatures rise, different types of pathogens are more likely to be present in drinking water around the world,” Leibler said.

Climate risks even put direct pressure on the human body and make people more vulnerable to infections.

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"What happens with warming countries, in particular, is that drought, by undermining nutrition and increasing malnutrition, compromises our body's ability to fight infections," said Amir Sapkota, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health.

Sapkota was not involved in the investigation.

Mora said that heat waves could be pushing some viruses, through natural selection, to tolerate higher temperatures.

That's bad news, she said, because one of the human body's key weapons against a viral invader is the heat of a fever. 

Scientists worry about a 'Pandora's box' of new pathogens 

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Mora's study also raises concerns about the possibility of new diseases spreading.

In the Arctic Circle, for example, ancient pathogens present in the bodies of animals frozen under permafrost have begun to resurface with some nasty effects.

Through genetic analysis, scientists traced a 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia to buried prehistoric animals exposed during a heat wave. 

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“Permafrost melting can expose pathogens that are frozen in time,” Sapkota explained.

"We don't even have any idea what they are and what they would look like if they infected us today."

Mora said it's possible that rising temperatures in the Arctic are opening a "Pandora's box" of new pathogens to which human immune systems have not been exposed.

Scientists are also concerned about the possibility of new viruses passing from animals to humans.

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With drought, animals begin to move across larger areas in search of food, leading to what we call "viral spillover," Sapkota explains.

"The same goes for humans who invade their area."

Mora's study found that some disease-carrying creatures become more prevalent or develop new advantages in a warmer world.

Therefore, scientists say it is important to increase vigilance in areas where humans and animals closely interact.

“One question that comes to mind is: What if that new viral spread event is something very unique?”

Sapkota said.

“If it was as efficient as the coronavirus in terms of spreading from one person to another, but as efficient as the Ebola virus in terms of killing people?” she concluded.

Source: telemundo

All news articles on 2022-08-15

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