Global warming is the greatest threat facing our planet today.
Scientists have been telling us this for a while: a warming planet alters weather patterns, water supplies, seasonal growth for plants and a sustainable way of life for us and the world’s wildlife.
But have you considered how climate change can affect your health?
Experts note that climate change may also be impacting certain environmentally sensitive diseases, and not in a good way. Read on, if you dare!
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
Changes in climate may enhance the spread of some diseases. Disease-causing agents, called pathogens, can be transmitted through food, water, and animals such as deer, birds, mice, and insects. Climate change could affect all of these transmitters.
Translated, that means certain diseases will be able to proliferate due to rapid changes in water, heat and air quality. Here are just five examples. More can be found on the EPA site.
Let’s start with salmonella bacteria, the most frequently reported cause of food-borne illness. You may remember that two years ago, a salmonella outbreak caused by contaminated chicken eggs sickened more than 1,600 people across the United States, sending many victims to the hospital with severe infections.
Salmonella is a rod-shaped bacilli that can cause diarrheal illness in humans by passing from the feces of people or animals to other people or other animals.
What’s the global warming connection? Higher air temperatures can increase cases of salmonella and other bacteria-related food poisoning because bacteria grow more rapidly in warm environments. As if that were not bad enough, flooding and heavy rainfall can cause overflows from sewage treatment plants into fresh water sources. Overflows could also contaminate certain food crops, as was suspected with Taylor Farms lettuce last year.
Giardiasis, caused by the parasite Giardia intestinalis, is an infection of the small intestine and is the most common cause of water-borne, parasitic illness in the U.S. Up to 2.5 million cases of this disease are reported each year in the U.S., and up to 20 percent of the world’s population is chronically infected.
As a backpacker, I spend much of my summer exploring wilderness areas and I know I am at risk of contracting giardiasis if I drink from contaminated fresh water lakes, so I always treat my water. But giardiasis is also a common cause of outbreaks of diarrhea in day-care centers because of the high probability of fecal-oral contamination from children.
In general, giardiasis occurs where there is inadequate sanitation or treatment of drinking water. The most common manifestations of giardiasis are diarrhea and abdominal pain, particularly cramping; the symptoms and signs of giardiasis do not begin for at least seven days following infection, but can occur as long as three or more weeks later. And as I know from several hiker friends, the recovery period can be really long.
What’s the global warming connection? Heavy rainfall or flooding can increase water-borne parasites such as Giardia intestinalis that are sometimes found in drinking water, and it can cause stormwater runoff that may contaminate water bodies such as lakes and beaches, that are used for recreation.
3. Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is spread through the bite of a blacklegged tick that is infected with Borrelia burgdorferi. Typical symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash. Most people recover after taking antibiotics, while up to 20 percent of sufferers experience symptoms that can continue for years.
However, if you want to find out how terrible and life-changing this disease can be, read about author Amy Tan’s experience: an outdoor bucolic wedding in upstate New York led to hallucinations, the inability to drive and a life of constant anxiety.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2010, the most recent data available, there were over 20,000 confirmed cases in North America. In the United States, most infections occur in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, from northeastern Virginia to Maine; in north central states, mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota; and on the west coast, particularly northern California.
What’s the global warming connection? The geographic range of ticks that carry Lyme disease is expanding as air temperatures rise. Patrick Leighton is a researcher at the University of Montreal:
From Scientific American:
“Currently, the areas where we are seeing a larger tick population is in the eastern part of the country along the U.S. border,” said Leighton, who observed that ranges for ticks are expanding by roughly 45 kilometers per year. He said the spread was linked to established Lyme disease hosts like white-tailed deer, suitable forest habitat and warmer temperatures.
“If you look historically, increases in temperature have been important [for Lyme disease],” he said. “The main thing that our study showed was that under warmer climate conditions, ticks move faster.”
4. West Nile Virus
West Nile virus is a disease spread by mosquitoes. West Nile virus was first discovered in the United States in the summer of 1999 in New York. Since then, the virus has spread throughout the United States. This is a type of virus known as a flavivirus. Researchers believe West Nile virus is spread when a mosquito bites an infected bird and then bites a person.
The milder version of the disease, generally called West Nile fever, may cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, muscle aches, nausea, rash or a sore throat. These symptoms usually last for 3 – 6 days, but there is a much more serious form of the disease that can be life-threatening.
However, on the positive side, many people who are bitten by mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus do not notice any symptoms at all.
What’s the global warming connection? In 2002, a new strain of West Nile virus, which can cause serious, life-altering disease, emerged in the United States. Higher temperatures are favorable to the survival of this new strain; since 2012 is the hottest year on record in the United States according to the National Climatic Data Center, it’s probably not a coincidence that some of the states hit hardest by West Nile have also felt the brunt of the heat.
5. Brain-Eating Amoeba
This one may be the scariest of all.
CDC researchers say that the two Louisiana individuals who died last year from a brain-eating primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) contracted the infection after using neti-pots with tap water harboring the bacteria, according to a study in Clinical Infectious Diseases.
The victims’ deaths, the first recorded PAM cases in the U.S., were linked to the presence of Naegleria fowleri in the tap water they used to regularly clear their sinuses with neti pots, the study says. The municipal tap water tested negative for the bacteria, but one victim’s tankless water heater and the other’s sink and faucet tested positive for the bacteria.
What are the symptoms of PAM? In the first case, a 28-year-old man developed a severe headache, neck stiffness, back pain, confusion, fever and vomiting and became extremely disoriented. The second victim was a 51-year-old woman who suffered from nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue, fever and neck stiffness.
What’s the global warming connection? The CDC believes that as temperatures increase, these bacteria can colonize in household plumbing and tap water. CDC researchers say there has been a shift north in the geographic pattern of where PAM cases are reported, perhaps due to a climate change or localized heat waves.
As always with the possibility of disease, the best approach is not to stay home and avoid all contact with insects. Rather, be careful! Personally, I’m not so fond of white-tailed deer any more, and I always check for those ticks after a hike in the park. Stay safe!
Photo Credit: thinkstock
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