How Climate Change Will Impact Parasites and Infections

First Posted: Feb 17, 2016 09:04 AM EST

How does climate change impact parasite infections? Scientists have taken a closer look to see how climate change and the immune reaction of the infected individual can affect the long-term and seasonal dynamics of parasite infections.

"Our research shows that how we target treatment for parasite infections-not only in wildlife like the rabbits we studied, but also in humans and livestock-will depend on how the climate changes and whether or not the host can mount an effective immune response," said Isabella Cattadori, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Previous work has shown that infections from one of the parasite species monitored in the study are controlled by an immune response in rabbits. However, infections from other parasite species are not controlled, even though the rabbit has an immune response to the parasite.

"Over the course of 23 years, we saw clear evidence of climate warming at our study site in Scotland," said Cattadori. "The warmer climate leads to increases in the number of soil-transmitted parasites in the pastures where the rabbits live because the parasites can survive longer in the soil. With more parasites, there is an increased risk of infections, but how this increased risk affects the severity of the infection in the long term depends on the ability of the host to mount an immune response."

For the parasite that isn't controlled by the rabbit's immune response, the researchers saw an increase in the intensity of infections in adult rabbits with climate warming. For the parasite that's controlled, though, the researchers saw no long-term increase with climate warming.

"Our research shows that as climates continue to change, we will need to tailor our treatment of parasite infections based on whether or not the host can mount an effective immune response," said Cattadori. "When a host's immune response cannot control the infection, treatment should be targeted at older individuals because they carry the most severe infections. When a host's immune response can control the infection, the treatment should be targeted at younger individuals because they are at the greatest risk."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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