The global COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent global monkeypox outbreak have once again brought attention to the damage that infectious illnesses may do. Furthermore, it appears that the issues associated with global diseases will only get worse as a result of climate change.
Researchers from the University of Hawaii have just released a new study that highlights how infectious diseases are significantly impacted by climate change, including the more regular occurrence of heat waves, droughts, and wildfires. The report specifically points out that 58% of infectious diseases that humanity has faced have at some stage been made worse by various climatic conditions. The same study identified 1,006 distinct routes by which climatic hazards, through various modes of transmission, resulted in dangerous illnesses.
The study’s authors claim that these results demonstrate the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
According to Erik Franklin, associate research professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, “Climate change is a human health issue, not just an environmental issue.”
The sheer number of paths (over 1000) was a wake-up call that climate change will have a profound influence on human health, according to Franklin. “Based on earlier research, we expected to find some correlations between climatic hazards and diseases.
Franklin called the study’s findings “sobering,” despite the fact that they only consider affects that have already happened and do not forecast future events. Here is a closer examination of the research, its conclusions, and its implications.
The Relationship between Infectious Disease and Climate Change
The University of Hawaii study examined scientific literature that connected climatic threats to certain infectious diseases, and it was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. According to the analysis, 10 different types of extreme weather linked to climate change appear to exacerbate 218 of the 375 infectious diseases that are known to affect humans.
Drought, heatwaves, wildfires, flooding, sea level rise, and changes in land cover were a few of the extreme weather phenomena that were taken into consideration in the study. Researchers found four fundamental connections between climate and disease in humans based on their study:
Climate risks like warming, flooding, and droughts have an impact on insects and animals that carry diseases by moving them closer to people.
Climate dangers also made certain diseases worse.
Climate dangers can sometimes damage people’s immune systems, making them more prone to illness.
The microbes that cause infectious diseases were not the only ones the researchers looked at. They broadened their focus to cover all human disorders, which meant that non-infectious diseases including asthma and allergies were included in the study. The objective was to ascertain whether the effects of climate change also affected these health problems.
The study noted that these things are in fact becoming a serious health problem for non-communicable outbreaks of asthma, skin, and respiratory illness. “Reducing the [study] scope to just microbes would have excluded plant and fungal allergens, which are aggravated by warming, floods, and storms,” it added.
How Disease Is Made Worse by Climate Change
William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, explained that “as temperatures rise, they can influence the range of insects, practically mosquitoes, but also ticks and other insects that can carry infectious disease.” This helped people understand the direct link between climate change and diseases.
For instance, certain mosquitos that spread the fatal disease malaria often cannot thrive over 5,000 feet in elevation, making mountainous places mosquito-free.
However, Schaffner noted that as a result of climate change, “their range has expanded because it’s a little warmer at higher altitudes than it used to be, and it’s been discovered that the mosquitos will follow the increasing temperature,” increasing the risk of malaria geographically and affecting new populations.
Similar to this, the northeast and upper Midwest of the United States have historically seen a flourishing population of ticks that carry the Lyme illness. Yet, Schaffner noted, “they have been rising, and it’s assumed that, at the very least, the warming climate has given those tick populations an opportunity to considerably spread.”
According to Franklin, the findings of the study demonstrate that society must act right away to minimize global greenhouse gas emissions and, in turn, the risk of adverse effects of climate change on human health in the future. Humanity will need to adjust to a changing environment that increases the risk of infectious diseases, he said, from a health perspective.
Schaffner concurred, stating that a number of initiatives that are suggested to assist mitigate the effects of climate change and safeguard human health are supported by the infectious disease community.
“This research is undoubtedly significant. Because so many people travel, it supports the idea that the world is getting smaller and smaller in terms of distance. Therefore, whatever is there in other nations could soon be here, “added Schaffner.
Schaffner emphasized that the current spread of infectious diseases is also influenced by other factors that were not covered in the research, such as a growing population and more individuals traveling farther distances. This concept is illustrated by the current outbreaks of COVID-19 and monkeypox, according to Schaffner.
“With the exception of Antarctica, every continent in the world had COVID discovered within a month of its initial description in China. This is because the COVID virus did not spread on its own. People were involved; they boarded aircraft, “Schaffner gave details.
Monkeypox, which originated in west Africa and has now been found in Europe, Canada, and the United States, is the same.
Schaffner responded, “That’s not global warming; that’s international travel.”
According to Schaffner, modern society spends more time working and playing in remote locales like rainforests, where they come into touch with more insects and wild animals, increasing the likelihood that diseases would spread from animals to people.
Society Must Pay Attention—But Don’t Panic
The goal of the study is to inspire global leaders and foster understanding of the worst-case scenarios of climate change, which include a 10% decline in the world’s population and even the extinction of humanity.
According to the research, “prudent risk management necessitates evaluation of worst-to-worst-case scenarios.” “However, such hypothetical scenarios for climate change are not well understood. Could global social collapse or possibly the eventual extinction of humans be caused by manmade climate change? This subject is dangerously understudied right now. However, there are many reasons to believe that a worldwide disaster might be brought on by climate change. “
In light of climate change, it will be imperative to continue and diligently monitor such trends with regard to the rise in infectious diseases that experts have recently brought to light.
“Occasionally, national political leadership seeks to reduce the CDC’s global view on public health, and all of us in public health think that’s a poor idea,” Schaffner said. For both their own good and for ours, we must station personnel abroad and assist other nations in conducting infectious disease surveillance; the more we are aware of global events, the more prepared we will be domestically.
We all need to start, according to Schaffner, thinking about the maxim that environmentalists frequently employ: “Think globally, act locally.”
“Everyone can do what they can do to contribute to conservations and saving the environment, and that includes being aware of climate change and making your elected representatives aware that you believe climate change is important and real and that you want them to vote in favor of doing those things that reduce our impact on it,” Schaffner said.
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