Warmer Temps Speed Infectious Disease Spread

Feb. 16, 2017 — In one year, 2015, the Zika virus leapt out of relative isolation in small groups of islands in the Pacific and tore through the Americas, infecting an estimated 500,000 people in 40 countries. 

Most had only mild symptoms. But for many pregnant women, the virus was devastating, inflicting grievous damage on the brain and nervous system of their developing babies.   

Among the many unanswered questions about the Zika virus is this one: How did it suddenly spread so far, so fast?

New studies suggest that climate change may have been at least partly responsible for Zika’s rapid spread.

“The climate conditions were very high risk for having Zika transmission,” said Jonathan Patz, MD, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Patz is studying how climate may have impacted Zika’s sudden spread.


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Zika was one of the case studies addressed at the Climate and Health Meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The meeting became a political football last month after the CDC postponed it in January ahead of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Former Vice President Al Gore salvaged the event and agreed to host it. 

“We’ve had a few obstacles,” Gore said in a statement opening the event. “The experts who were looking forward to this felt it was valuable to go forward anyway.”

Speakers at the conference talked about the wide range of effects global warming and climate change are having on public health: making plants like poison ivy more poisonous, making allergy seasons longer and more intense, and increasing killer heat waves and smoggy air.

Organizers didn’t shy away from jabs at the Trump administration, which has been hostile to climate protections.

“As the climate changes, so will the infectious diseases that we confront. More outbreaks like Ebola and Zika. More pandemics like the bird flu. And here’s the catch: Walls will not keep these pathogens out,” said Ashish Jha, MD, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, to appreciative murmurs and applause from the audience. “No borders are going to protect us. That’s what awaits us unless we act.”

His quote was an apparent reference to Trump’s pledge to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

“There is a clear warming trend, and it threatens our health,” said Kim Knowlton, DrPH, a senior staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

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