Our Planet, Ourselves: How Climate Change Results in Emerging Diseases

Mosquitoes—and the viruses that they carry—are pushing up the incidence of malaria globally and causing periodic explosive outbreaks of Rift Valley fever, which first brings on flulike symptoms but can turn into a severe hemorrhagic fever akin to Ebola. Bluetongue virus, a ruminant virus spread by midges that was once confined to tropical areas, has reached as far as Norway. Studies have shown shifts in cholera transmission with recent climate variability. As emerging diseases migrate to new areas, they encounter new species, making outbreaks even more difficult to manage.

Unfortunately, writes journalist Lois Parshley in her feature article “Catching Fever,” the common enabler for the movement of each of these ailments is human-caused climate change. As weather patterns wreak more havoc, a Pandora’s box of microbes enters new terrain, stressing global public health systems.

Parshley’s article is part of an important special report on “The Future of Medicine.” In the package, contributing editor Melinda Wenner Moyer describes the “American Epidemic”: a resurgence of infectious disease outbreaks that are sickening thousands. Before vaccines, better sanitation and indoor plumbing, the root causes of such waves of illness and death were mainly biological: viruses, bacteria and parasites. Now they are social as well: growing income inequality in the U.S. has led to rising rates of hepatitis A, Legionnaires’ disease and other scourges. The problems are hardly confined to poor neighborhoods, although they may reemerge there. Once an outbreak occurs, it’s not choosy about whom it infects. After a formidable flu season this year, associate editor Dina Fine Maron looks “Beyond the Flu Shot.”

Such alterations are happening whether we want to use the words “climate change” or not. Whether we acknowledge the scientific consensus, demonstrated in thousands of studies over decades, climate change is both real and promoted by human activities. Coastal communities are being affected by rising seas, drought-prone areas are arid for longer periods and, as our report shows, infectious agents are taking advantage of these more extreme weather patterns.

For more than 170 years Scientific American has ably chronicled how advances in science and technology have advanced discovery and shaped the world. But I think we all could do a better job communicating the value of an evidence-based view for addressing human problems. For this reason, I have agreed to join the Advisory Committee for the Climate Communications Initiative of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. You can learn more about it here: http://nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices/cci. As always, I welcome your comments.

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