Climate Change is Causing a Rise in Infectious Diseases in New Locations

First Posted: Feb 16, 2015 09:26 AM EST

Climate change may be causing an unprecedented increase in the amount of infectious disease exposure  in new locations. Scientists have found that as temperatures warm, new illnesses are emerging and thriving across the globe.

"It's not that there's going to be one 'Adromeda Strain' that will wipe everybody out on the planet," said Daniel Brooks, one of the researchers, in a news release. "There are going to be a lot of localized outbreaks putting pressure on medical and veterinary health systems. It will be the death of a thousand cuts."

In order to better understand how climate change impacts disease, the researchers examined parasites in the tropics and Arctic regions. In both of these regions, the scientists witnessed the arrival of species that hadn't previously lived in the area and the departure of others. This means that as animals change locations, they're exposed to new parasites and pathogens.

For example, after humans hunted capuchin and spider monkeys out of existence in some regions of Costa Rica, their parasites switched to howler monkeys. In addition, lungworms have moved northward and have shifted hosts from caribou to muskoxen in the Canadian Arctic.

"Even though a parasite might have a very specialized relationship with one particular host in one particular place, there are other hosts that may be as susceptible," said Brooks. "West Nile Virus is a good example-no longer an acute problem for humans or wildlife in North America, it nonetheless is here to stay."

It's difficult to halt climate change. That's why researchers need to collaborate. The scientists urge that there be a great collaboration between the public and veterinary health communities and the "museum" community, which includes biologists who study and classify life forms and how they evolve. In addition to treating human cases of an emerging disease and developing a vaccine, it's crucial to find out what non-human species can carry a pathogen.

"We have to admit we're not winning the war against emerging diseases," said Brooks. "We're not anticipating them. We're not paying attention to their basic biology, where they might come from and the potential for new pathogens to be introduced."

The findings are published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

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