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5 Diseases on the Move in North America, Thanks to Climate Change

Some nasty diseases are making their mark on the U.S., possibly due to warmer temps and rising seas.

Photo Credit: Natursports/ Shutterstock.com


When we consider the future effects of climate change in the United States, we sometimes think super-hurricanes, intense wildfires and a cinematic dystopia featuring robotic Haley Joel Osment racing around flooded Manhattan. However, we may want to put the scuba-lessons aside and consider a lesser-known threat from rising temperatures and erratic weather. Experts note that climate change may also be impacting certain environmentally sensitive diseases, and not in a way that will have us breathing easier.

Just how are rising water-levels and steamier temperatures playing with the planet’s pathogens? As the Environmental Protection Agency notes, disease-causing agents are passed on through food, water and animals such as “deer, birds, mice and insects.” Climate change may be altering these transmitters, allowing certain diseases to proliferate as extreme changes in water, heat, air quality and more wreak havoc with the waters and animals that host some of our deadliest diseases.

What’s more, the EPA  asserts that climate change will increase all water-borne diseases via heavy rainfall and flooding. Heavy storm water runoff will contaminate other lakes. Sewage systems will be overwhelmed, spilling waste water into crops and beaches. Gastrointestinal distress will take on a whole new meaning to us all.

So strap on your surgical masks—here are five illnesses making a mark on North America, possibly due to climate change.

1. The Amoeba That Wants Your Brains

Meet Naegleria fowleri, a single-celled amoeba that enjoys lakes, rivers, hot springs, and your brain. If you are unlucky enough to swim with the mini-beasts, you may develop what the CDC refers to as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). In other words, an amoeba attacks your brain tissue and you die.

Last year, Naegleria fowleri killed two people in Louisiana who used a neti pot to rinse unfiltered tap water through their sinuses. Unfortunately, the water was also home to this unpleasant organism. In the same year a 9-year-old boy from Virginia died after swimming near a fishing camp and a 16-year-old girl from Florida died after a dip in the St. John’s River. Found all over the world, this amoeba makes its American home among warm freshwater spots in the South—until recently.

Thanks to climate change, it appears the zombie-like amoebas are heading north. Some researchers believe it is migrating due to increased northern temperatures. The CDC is directly tracking this potential, as well as investigating the death of an Indiana man.

2. Oh, Canada: Lyme Disease on the Move

Climate change may be playing out in North America through the rise of Lyme disease in the north. Carried by ticks, the illness is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Once infected, humans experience fever, headache and other decidedly unpleasant maladies. Most people recover after taking antibiotics, while up to 20% of sufferers experience symptoms that can continue for years.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2010, the most recent data available, there were over 20,000 confirmed cases in North America. Most of the afflicted lived along the Northeast Corridor, while some resided in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Meanwhile, cases are on the rise in Canada.

Lyme disease is greatly influenced by increased temperatures and wetness. Patrick Leighton is an expert at the University of Montreal. “If you look historically, increases in temperature have been important [for Lyme disease],” he told Scientific American. “The main thing that our study showed was that under warmer climate conditions, ticks move faster.” Hosts are enticed by balmy temperatures. Therefore, courtesy of animals such as the white-tailed deer, ticks are galloping their way north.

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