Climate Change Spreads Disease Worldwide

Annie Hauser
Published: August 2, 2013

The muskox is one arctic animal that's already seeing higher mortality rates because of one climate change-spread infectious disease. (Susan Kutz/University of Calgary)

Climate change is affecting the spread of infectious diseases worldwide — posing serious threats to not only humans, but also animals and plants, a team of international disease ecologists write in the journal Science.

Public health officials should change the way they model disease systems of all kinds to include climate variables, researchers argue. Taking climate into account could help more accurately predict and prevent the spread of deadly disease.

The changing climate is already massively affecting plants and animals, researchers write in the study. The muskox, pictured above, is one arctic animal that's already seeing higher mortality rates because of one climate change-spread infectious disease, researchers said. Biodiversity loss has even been linked to greater risks from certain infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease and the West Nile Virus, according to researchers.

(MORE: Deadly Diseases from Mosquitos, Ticks and More)

Additionally, certain human diseases, such as dengue, malaria and cholera, thrive in warmer temperatures, threatening much of the developing world. The warming globe's impact on agricultural systems and game species pose a particular concern for the indigenous people of the Arctic, among other groups in rapidly changing areas. 

The next step, researchers say, is taking action. 

"We need to transcend simple arguments about which is more important — climate change or socioeconomics — and ask just how much harder will it be to control diseases as the climate warms?" coauthor Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies said in a statement. "Will it be possible at all in developing countries?"

Researchers also need to quantify how climate change impacts disease. 

"We'd like to be able to predict, for example, that if the climate warms by a certain amount, then in a particular host-parasite system we might see an increase from one to two transmission cycles per year," according to the University of Georgia's Sonia Altizer, who is the study's lead author. "But we'd also like to try to tie these predictions to actions that might be taken."

MORE: Climate Change from Space

The Ash Creek Fire seen here is one of some 27,000 fires which have destroyed nearly 2 million acres of the western U.S. since the start of 2012. Extremely dry conditions, stiff winds, unusually warm weather, and trees killed by outbreaks of pine bark beetles have provided ideal conditions for the blazes. (Credit: NASA)

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