What do we do now? Disease in the 21st century

The question of what to do about global warming has always been a difficult one to answer. It’s a problem caused by a myriad of factors, many of which lie beyond the power of the average citizen to affect. Deliberate and accidental inaction to avoid destabilizing our climate have led us to the point where “What can we do?” is a simpler question to answer than it used to be.

When it comes to changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, our options as individuals are still pretty limited, but we’re no longer facing a question of if the climate will warm. The climate is warming, and the evidence indicates that it will continue to do so for the rest of our lives. What, then, can we do about it?

When the warnings about global warming first came out, we had time to work to change our energy infrastructure, and to avoid destabilizing our climate. The same is true now, at a smaller level. For most of us, the worst effects of climate change aren’t here yet. They’re coming, and they’re coming soon, but we’ve got just a little breathing space. We can use that for preparation to reduce the harm to ourselves and to others when the shit really hits the fan.

2016, as an El Niño year, gave us a glimpse of one of the dangers waiting over the horizon. As temperatures rise, ecosystems all over the planet are creeping into new territories, and that includes changes in location and behavior of diseases. PNAS has just published a study from the University of Liverpool that concluded that the El Niño conditions of this past year played a key role in the Zika Virus outbreak:

Our modeling results indicate that temperature conditions related to the 2015 El Niño climate phenomenon were exceptionally conducive for mosquito-borne transmission of ZIKV over South America. The virus is believed to have entered the continent earlier in 2013. This finding implicates that such a large ZIKV outbreak occurred not solely because of the introduction of ZIKV in a naive population, but because the climatic conditions were optimal for mosquito-borne transmission of ZIKV over South America in 2015.

We’ve known for some time that a lot of ailments – especially insect-born ones – are going to change their ranges as the climate changes, so this isn’t exactly shocking news. What’s different is that this is an analysis of an existing climate-related outbreak, rather than a projection of what’s likely. We’re going to see more of this kind of research as the century progresses.

So what can we do? Some of the options are pretty straightforward. Pay attention to disease outbreaks where you are or where you’re going, and take advice about avoiding infection, or about not spreading it if you’re already infected. Keep healthy, stay informed, and help spread good information within your sphere of influence.

With most of the harmful effects of an unstable, warming climate, educated preparation could go a long way to reducing the damage done, whether it be for droughts, or storms, or even epidemics.

Image shows an Aedes albopictus mosquito preparing to bite a human


  1. says

    We can probably also make an effort to understand the difference between viral infections and bacterial, and stop prescribing antibiotics to patients who are suffering from flu. China has been particularly bad about that in the past, but US agriculture is also doing its part to breed super-bacteria. I have a friend who works at a major urban hospital and apparently the MRSA problem is getting really bad and is going to get worse.

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