ATHENS — To respond to that challenge, Altizer and her colleagues—Kutz, Ostfeld, Pieter T. J. Johnson of the University of Colorado Boulder and C. Drew Harvell of Cornell University—laid out an agenda for future research and action.
One recommendation is to expand data about the physiological responses hosts and parasites have to temperature changes to help develop early warning systems.
“We’d like to be able to predict, for example, that if the climate warms by a certain amount, then in a particular host-parasite system we might see an increase from one to two transmission cycles per year,” Altizer said. “But we’d also like to try to tie these predictions to actions that might be taken.”
Such forecasting is well established in crop disease management and has been used to both preventatively close coral reefs and target areas at risk of malaria outbreaks.
“We face a tough task in the oceans, where disease outbreaks can be out of sight and undetected,” Harvell said. “Because some coral disease outbreaks are predictable from warming events, we are developing forecasting programs to help us respond before the outbreak begins.”
The researchers also pointed out that certain human communities, such as those of indigenous peoples in the Arctic, could be disproportionately impacted by climate-disease interactions.
“A better understanding of the impacts of parasitism on wildlife health, and an ability to make accurate predictions of future wildlife sustainability, is particularly important to aboriginal people across the Arctic who depend on wildlife as a source of food, income and a focus of cultural activities,” Kutz said.
Johnson continued, “Because disease represents the product of multiple interacting species, including hosts, pathogens and other members of the food web, forecasting responses to ongoing climate shifts is a tremendous challenge,” he said. “Given the rising importance of infectious diseases not only for human health but also wildlife conservation, it’s also a challenge for which we are in sore need of a solution. We hope our work contributes to that.”