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

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.

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.


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