5 Diseases on the Move in North America, Thanks to Climate Change
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3. Malaria Marches On
Malaria, once the scourge of American army men stationed in the South Pacific, is a mosquito-borne flu-like illness caused by a parasite. In 2010, the CDC shared that as many as 216 million people were affected by malaria worldwide, mostly in African areas lacking a public health infrastructure.
Experts note that, as the planet warms, mosquitoes are being drawn out to greater distances. As Maria Neira, director of the World Health Organization, told ABC News, “In Asia, there are more people at risk of dengue fever [similar to malaria] due to global warming. In Mount Kenya, mosquitoes are being found at higher and higher elevations.”
Malaria was largely eliminated in the United States after 1951. However, in 2002, the CDC reported that the number of malaria cases in the U.S. rose sharply through the 1990s, likely due to the rise of international travel. As many as 1,500 cases are now reported annually in the United States. How the warming planet will impact these statistics remains to be seen.
4. Ciguatera Fish Poisoning Comes to America
Anyone who has ever suffered through food-poisoning knows the experience is akin to rinsing out your insides with bleach. But ciguatera fish poisoning pushes these symptoms to a whole new level. Sure, there are your “average” symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. Ciguatera adds on bizarre neurological problems—such as reversing the feeling of hot and cold for its victims.
Ciguatera is considered endemic from Florida through the Caribbean. Now, it’s making its way up North America. It’s caused by eating fish that gorge on the algae of coral reefs. As waters warm, new cases are popping up in previously unexposed northern latitudes. In 2008, the FDA expanded warnings about ciguatera into the northern Gulf of Mexico. Canada issued a warning in 2009, after two people became ill. In 2009, one study suggested that, as sea levels continue to warm due to climate change, the impact zone of ciguatera will continue to grow.
5. West Nile Virus and You, Together Since 1999
West Nile virus is an " unstoppable" illness, which can leave its victims with symptoms ranging from fever and vomiting to brain-swelling and death. Since 1999, the CDC reports as many as 30,000 people have been infected. As of Aug. 21, 2012, a total of 1,118 West Nile virus cases have been reported in the U.S, including 41 deaths this year alone. According to the CDC, these are the highest numbers of cases per season since West Nile was first detected in the United States.
The West Nile virus is carried by mosquitoes feeding on infected birds. Rising temperatures take center stage in this drama, as July 2012, was in fact the hottest month on record in U.S. history. As experts from NASA and NOAA detail, rising temperatures are a direct result of climate change.
But how does the heat bring the virus? As Scientific American shares, higher temperatures actually improve a mosquito’s ability to bite both infected birds and us. Worse, drought conditions also encourage transmission. Standing, tepid water is an excellent draw for mosquitoes and the infected birds looking for water.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
Ultimately, there may be a hazy silver lining in the dark clouds of our horizon. As long as we keep a “robust public health infrastructure,” as noted by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, we may be able to alleviate some of the strain climate change places on fighting these diseases.
So as long as we aren’t overrun by our insect overloads, we might have a chance of combating many of these climate-sensitive illnesses. In the meantime, if a suspicious white-tailed deer makes eye contact, it’s perhaps best to keep walking.