As another year passes and another temperature record is broken and the additional data that keeps pouring in is equally stark. A minority in the scientific community has claimed that the climate change projections are grossly underestimating its severity, but now they may feel some vindication as new data and updated modelling are increasingly supporting their position. While we are all (hopefully) at this point aware of the more obvious risks, I would like to take a moment to describe the more neglected side effects of man-made climate change; those associated with the spread of infectious disease. Not only is the public much less aware of these particular risks but the international community, and many western governments in particular, are, at best, underestimating them.
The WHO has already recognized the issue of changing climate patterns and their relation to the spread of disease but it does admit that much more analysis is required to assess the consequences of these changes. They might soon get a chance to collect new data as it appears that the Zika carrying mosquitoes are making their way up the western hemisphere. Extreme weather events such as an increase in frequency and severity of floods combined with a rise in temperatures have been steadily accompanying current climate change trends. This will spur on the expansion of the mosquitoes habitat range and the extra stagnant water will provide these insects with more fertile breeding ground than ever before.
Mosquito borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever may begin to create outbreaks in regions where there was none before. Even the western world, which has become quite good at containing mosquito-borne illnesses, could find it difficult to deal with the increased insect vector burden. If we combine that with increasing socio-economic disparity and seemingly never-ending financial difficulty, it would make adequate responses much more difficult than ever.
Lyme disease spread by ticks falls into this same category and since the habitat of its animal host is expanding so are the rates of infection among humans, which have already seen a worrying surge in Canada.
Our last and most bizarre example comes from Russia, of course, where the thawing Siberian “permafrost” has exposed ancient corpses of wild animals that may have been responsible for the first anthrax outbreak in Siberia since 1941. The changing patterns of infectious disease and reemergence of maladies long forgotten in areas unused to their presence provides us with a veritable challenge that will be tougher to tackle than it may seem.
Emerging pathogens will produce significant problems due to fundamental flaws in the way that we approach such threats from both scientific and political perspectives. The current way that biomedical research is prioritized is based upon threats that are either immediate or approaching in the near future. Science, like many other human endeavors, can suffer from a considerable lack of foresight.
The political paralysis on the international stage regarding climate change is similar the antibiotic crisis that has now gripped the scientific and pharmaceutical community. This crisis involves the sudden, geometric increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria and the fact that no new classes of antibiotics have been produced since the early 90s. It is also responsible for our general inability to find adequate solutions for diseases like bacterial dysentery and cholera, which are prominent on the WHO watch-list of pathogens at high risk of spread due to climate change effects.
When dealing with disease trends that are linked to a massive problem such as climate and all its associated effects, we might find it difficult to adapt rapidly to the growing danger if we lack the knowledge and tools to fight it. Granted, when financial, intellectual and material resources are concentrated we can certainly progress quickly towards our goal but when dealing with a threat that is still poorly understood and approaching fast it does not bode well for our chances. Considering the precedent set by the antibiotic crisis, which we have neglected for at least 30 years and which is now fatally exposing the flaws in our conduct of scientific research, we might be in for a rude awakening once more exotic and less understood diseases begin to become mainstream.
There are of course limitations as to what we can focus our microscopes on at any one time, but it is becoming apparent that a fundamental shift in the way science is conducted and prioritized for funding will be required. It will be necessary to distribute some of our resources to research fields focusing on long-term disease projections and their implications on public health. In a sense, scientific forecasting with the purpose of exposing knowledge gaps that need to be addressed immediately in anticipation of future epidemiological crises.
Western countries have tended to adopt a somewhat “not my problem” attitude to diseases which have been contentiously classified as diseases of poverty and other afflictions which do not affect the west directly. This attitude was likewise a factor behind the slow response to the recent Ebola outbreaks with the containment effort ramping up after medical staff returning home to the US and UK started showing signs of disease. This is evidence as a serious effort to tackle Zika has only now begun in earnest since its recent spread into Florida. The FDA in a panic move is even rushing out the nuclear option to eliminate mosquito populations.
It is becoming apparent that some of the afflictions that the developed world has long neglected or forgotten about have the potential to be reintroduced back into western society that is wholly unprepared for them. While we can do a fine job of creating solutions when under duress, the epidemiological patterns of these diseases, combined with the current socio-economic climate and scientific focus will make it all the more difficult, with potentially fatal consequences.