Climate breakdown and disease outbreaks

| 13th June 2019
Scientists are increasingly concerned about what climate breakdown could mean for the spread of disease.

Though wildfires, hurricanes, droughts and other natural disasters may seem more pressing, it's essential to recognize the true breadth of the problem.

The dangers associated with climate change are primarily environmental. With rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and a greater frequency of extreme weather events, all the most pressing threats seem external. However, these changes to our surroundings have implications for the spread of disease.

As context, the World Health Organization has identified climate change as a major cause of emerging infectious diseases. Research has shown evidence of a link, with variability in climate conditions affecting the transport and dissemination of infectious agents. Efforts to contain these issues are underway.

Organizations have already developed predictive models to estimate the future effects of infectious disease under projected climate change scenarios. Scientists around the world are attempting to address the problem, studying the complex causal relationships behind this growing risk. Case studies provide a clear picture.


As of 2018, dengue fever was endemic in over 100 countries. WHO estimates that there are approximately 100 million cases each year, a figure that may increase as the global mean temperature continues to rise. The connection is clear, as the vector-borne infectious disease spreads more easily in warm climates.

That said, rising temperatures can facilitate infectious disease transmission in unexpected ways. Kris Murray, a senior research scientist at EcoHealth Alliance, raised concerns over the availability of food. More specifically, he detailed the relationship between food shortages and contact with certain species of animal.

Murray said on the subject, "With climate change expected to put increasing pressure on food security in Africa, food shortages will push more people to alternative food sources and consumption of bushmeat, like bats, will likely increase." This is problematic, given the link between disease and bushmeat.

Almost 50 percent of Ebola outbreaks have a direct link to bushmeat consumption and handling. Murray also noted that the range of several species of bat could expand, leading to more contact between bats and humans. Of course, the issue is far more extensive than a growing reliance on bushmeat.

Pest control

Nearly 75 percent of all new, emerging or re-emerging diseases that are presently affecting humans originate in animals. AIDS, SARS and the H5N1 avian flu are all fitting examples of this trend. It represents an unsettling pattern as deforestation drives more wild animals into areas with vulnerable populations.

As mentioned earlier, organizations have developed predictive models to estimate the future effects of infectious disease in climate change scenarios. These models allow researchers and healthcare professionals to prepare for potential issues. In doing so, they can preempt outbreaks and mitigate risk.

Naturally, a long-term solution for climate change and disease outbreaks would entail a substantial reduction in carbon emissions. The restoration of the environment would help to manage many of the issues in the previous section, and disadvantaged populations would benefit from their newfound security.

However, disease outbreaks don't solely occur in developing countries. There are currently around 300,000 cases each year of people infected with Lyme disease in the United States, a number which will most likely grow with an increasingly hot and humid climate. Even so, professionals in pest control have solutions.


As an example, those in the industry may choose to target a mosquito population at the larval stage. With the application of larvicides, they're able to keep a population below certain levels and manage an area that would have otherwise proven dangerous. That said, citizens can also participate in disease prevention.

The Center for Disease Control provides several suggestions for suppressing tick populations. Citizens should mow their lawn on a regular basis, clear away dead leaves and sticks and place outdoor furniture away from trees, dense shrubs and bushes. These simple strategies can assist in preserving public safety.

Climate change is more than an issue of environmental unrest. It has consequences for the spread of disease, creating the ideal conditions for dengue fever, the Ebola virus, Lyme disease and similar afflictions. As we move into the next decade, this issue will only grow in relevance with the increasing rate of outbreaks.

As we move forward, the continued efforts of researchers, scientists and professionals in various industries will prove critical in addressing the problem. Though wildfires, hurricanes, droughts and other natural disasters may seem more pressing, it's essential to recognize the true breadth of the problem.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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