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Climate Change Fueling the Rise of Infectious Diseases Worldwide

Climate Change Fueling the Rise of Infectious Diseases Worldwide
Editorial illustration: HKPinoyTV Images

Human-driven changes to the planet are dramatically impacting the spread of infectious diseases, with biodiversity loss and climate change emerging as major drivers, according to a wave of new research.

The effects are complex and wide-ranging, with some diseases surging due to warmer, wetter conditions and others declining in certain regions as the climate shifts. But the overall trend is clear – our impacts on the natural world are turbocharging the transmission of viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

“If there are more generations of parasites or vectors, then there can be more disease,” explained Jason Rohr, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and senior author of a study published this week in the journal Nature.

Rohr’s team analyzed nearly 3,000 datasets and found that biodiversity loss was by far the biggest factor increasing infectious disease. Climate change and the introduction of non-native species were the next biggest drivers.

As humans destroy habitats and push species toward extinction, the parasites and pathogens they carried become more likely to jump to new, more abundant hosts. Rarer, more resistant species are disappearing, leaving a pool of “parasite-competent” animals that can easily transmit disease.

Warmer, wetter conditions from climate change are also expanding the range of disease-carrying vectors like mosquitoes, while altering the life cycles of many parasites to boost their reproduction.

“The change in water availability for drinking or agriculture could be very serious indeed,” warned Mark Smith, an associate professor at the University of Leeds whose research predicts a major decline in areas suitable for malaria transmission in Africa in coming decades.

But the effects are not uniform. While dengue fever is surging in the tropics, drier conditions may shrink the disease’s footprint in parts of Africa. And habitat loss or urbanization can sometimes reduce infectious disease, thanks to sanitation improvements.

Nonetheless, the overall trajectory is clear. As humans remake the planet to suit our needs, we are inadvertently priming the pump for new pandemics.

“Disease increases in response to climate change will be consistent and widespread, further stressing the need for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Rohr.

Monitoring global climate patterns like the Indian Ocean basin-wide index could help officials better predict and prepare for outbreaks. But ultimately, curbing the rise of infectious disease means tackling the root causes – our own environmental destruction.