ATHENS — Climate change is affecting the spread of infectious diseases worldwide, according to an international team of leading disease ecologists, with serious impacts to human health and biodiversity conservation. Writing in the journal Science, they propose that modeling the way disease systems respond to climate variables could help public health officials and environmental managers predict and mitigate the spread of lethal diseases.
The issue of climate change and disease has provoked intense debate over the past decade, particularly in the case of diseases that affect humans, according to the University of Georgia’s Sonia Altizer, who is the study’s lead author.
“For a lot of human diseases, responses to climate change depend on the wealth of nations, healthcare infrastructure and the ability to take mitigating measures against disease,” said Altizer, an associate professor in the UGA Odum School of Ecology. “The climate signal, in many cases, is hard to tease apart from other factors like vector control and vaccine and drug availability.”
Climate warming already is causing changes in diseases affecting wildlife and agricultural ecosystems, she said. “In many cases, we’re seeing an increase in disease and parasitism. But the impact of climate change on these disease relationships depends on the physiology of the organisms involved, the location on the globe and the structure of ecological communities.”
At the organism level, climate change can alter the physiology of both hosts and parasites. Some of the clearest examples are found in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising rapidly, resulting in faster developing parasites. A lungworm that affects muskoxen, for instance, can now be transmitted over a longer period each summer, making it a serious problem for the populations it infects.
“The Arctic is like a ‘canary in the global coal mine,’” said co-author Susan Kutz of the University of Calgary and Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre.