Rising Temperatures, Rising Health Concerns

What are the hidden health consequences of the global climate crisis? Guest blog by Dr. David Horn

December 23, 2019

5:01 pm

Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease that has plagued warm-weather locales around the world. Colder climes have been immune to the ravages of the disease because the carriers — mosquitoes — cannot survive in colder temperatures. But because of the impact of the climate crisis, once-safe cold regions of the planet have warmed considerably, exposing them to the dangers of malaria and other malicious pathogens.

This is just the tip of the quickly-melting iceberg.

In warfare, infectious diseases kill more soldiers, civilians and children than the actual combat. In a similar way, infectious diseases will directly impact the lives of billions of people in new and extremely threatening ways and will likely kill many times more people than extreme weather, flooding, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, and rising sea levels combined.

We are already seeing direct and indirect effects of global weather changes on infectious diseases. Direct effects include the spread of mosquitoes and ticks that can carry malaria, dengue, and Lyme disease into new geographic areas; the proliferation of new diseases, including Zika; and the expansion of other infectious diseases, such as deadly fungal infections, into new, virgin territories.

Brown mosquito. Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash

Even influenza is affected by weather, where changing weather patterns are creating stronger, and longer, flu seasons. Indirect effects also occur, and include the immediate and unstructured need to resettle large numbers of people, who are forced to migrate due to harsh environmental conditions. Again, just like in warfare, infectious diseases ensue due to insufficient and contaminated water and food, inadequate services (such as sewage and garbage removal), and lack of basic medical care. Recent examples include massive outbreaks of cholera (Yemen) and leptospirosis (Puerto Rico), which are indicative of bacterial infectious diseases that thrive in chaotic conditions caused by warfare or severe weather events, such as hurricanes.

Preliminary responses to the realities of these global weather changes have been largely limited to physical plans regarding loss of habitable land. Little to no consideration has been seriously given to address monumental public-health challenges due to infectious diseases. For example, it's been estimated that 1 billion people — currently unaffected by such diseases as malaria, dengue, and Zika — will soon be at risk to acquire these challenging and often lethal diseases.

Are we adequately prepared for another influenza pandemic as we note the 100-year anniversary of the great influenza pandemic that occurred at the end of World War I, which killed at least 50 million people?

There is an urgent need to develop new technologies and vaccines to prepare for these global changes. Massive public and private resources need to be coordinated and harmonized. Although currently neglected, the development of new therapies and the stockpiling of these remedies should become a top priority as we all face the existential threat of global climate change.

David Horn, M.D., is an infectious-disease specialist with over 30 years’ experience in clinical medicine, drug development, and clinical trials. He is also CEO of Mid-Atlantic BioTherapeutics, which is developing new immunotherapies and vaccines for treating many bacterial and viral infectious diseases. Dr. Horn attended the launch of Earth's Call in Aspen in May this past year. He can be reached at dhorn@mid-atlanticbio.com.

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