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Climate change prompts debate among experts about spread of tropical diseases
The Washington Post, United States Monday, January 10, 2011


A very controversial idea among ecologists, climatologists and biologists is that climate change will bring malaria and other tropical killers to our door. Epstein claims that evidence of the disease risks of climate change have grown in the past one decade. Climate change has played no role at all in the shifts in infectious-disease patterns over course of last few centuries, infectious-disease specialists note. Humans have absolutely no role, writes Arthur Allen in The Washington Post.

The room where 10,000 Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes hatch each week is hot and humid and smells like the tropics - an appropriate surrogate for a warming world. The Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute in Baltimore, where the insects are raised, was created with a billionaire's anonymous donation a decade ago, after a map printed in Scientific American suggested that by 2020 malaria could be breaking out in Baltimore, and across the eastern United States and Europe.

The idea that climate change will bring malaria and other tropical killers to our door turns out to be an extremely controversial one among ecologists, climatologists and biologists such as Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, who runs the "insectary" at Johns Hopkins. "It's a very complicated story," says Jacobs-Lorena.

...

Epstein believes that evidence of the disease risks of climate change have only grown in the past decade. "The earlier models did not take into account the dramatic increase in extreme weather that we're seeing," he said.

...

In 2008, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, warned that physicians should be on the lookout for dengue fever, a tropical disease that has exploded in South and Central America and across much of Asia in recent years. The mosquito Aedes albopictus, which can carry dengue, has extended its range across the United States since arriving in the 1950s, probably in a shipment of tires from Japan.

Cases of dengue have been reported in Texas since 1981, and there have been small outbreaks in Hawaii and, most recently, in the Florida Keys. The disease "threatens temperate zones of the continental United States where mosquito vectors continue to expand," Fauci wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Biological first principles suggest that warmer weather, by causing organisms to grow faster, will expand the range of disease-carrying insects and microbial pathogens.

...

Last year, an article in the journal Ecology raised questions about these theories and suggested that, rather than broadening the range of tropical infectious diseases, climate change would just shift the burden. New outbreaks in some areas would likely be offset by reductions in disease elsewhere, wrote the author, Kevin Lafferty.

...

Climate change has not been the main cause of shifts in infectious-disease patterns over the previous couple of centuries, infectious-disease specialists note. Humans have played an important role.

Mosquito-spread diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever appeared in the United States as late as the early 20th century, in periods that were cooler than today. There were massive malaria epidemics in places as far north as Poland and Siberia in the mid-20th century. These diseases went away as a result of public health campaigns and improved sanitation and living standards.

...

Markers along the C&O Canal towpath memorialize the canal diggers who died of cholera there early in the 19th century. And cholera is still with us, its bacteria colonizing brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay. If we didn't have water filtration plants in our region, we'd probably still have outbreaks of the disease.

...

Gubler says that dengue's resurgence in parts of the tropics has resulted from urbanization and the failure of mosquito eradication campaigns, rather than climate change. He sees little chance that dengue, which causes a painful, sometimes fatal infection, will make serious inroads in the United States and points to a 2008 study that compared dengue rates in Brownsville, Tex., and Matamoros, its sister city across the Rio Grande in Mexico. While 32 percent of Matamoros residents had been recently infected, the survey found, only 4 percent of Brownsville residents showed evidence of infection.

...

Still, some studies have shown an increase in dengue in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Thailand following particularly warm, wet periods, suggesting that warming could also bring the disease to the United States. Fauci and David Morens, co-author of the JAMA article, don't think it likely that dengue will spread massively around the United States, Morens said in an interview. But smaller outbreaks like one seen in Key West this year are more likely than in the past, he said.

...

Rita Colwell, a University of Maryland environmental microbiologist and former National Science Foundation director who has spent 40 years studying cholera, believes climate change has played a role in the Haitian outbreak.

Colwell and her colleagues have shown that the cholera bacterium lives, often in a dormant state, in brackish estuaries and on zooplankton. As these tiny organisms multiply rapidly during warm periods, cholera can spring back to life. Colwell's research has convinced most of her colleagues that the zooplankton blooms - and cholera outbreaks - respond to warming periods that will increase with climate change, mainly by lengthening yearly epidemics.

...

"Public health systems around the world are fighting a constant battle against diseases," said Joshua Rosenthal, environment and health program director at the National Institute of Health's Fogarty International Center. "Climate change is definitely affecting disease dynamics, but the big question - will diseases be a bigger problem in a warmer, wetter, sometimes dryer world? - can't be separated from the factor of diligent public health systems that are in place."

...

Whether or not human engineering got us into this mess, perhaps it can get us out. That's the idea behind Jacobs-Lorena and his Baltimore mosquitoes.

...

"I think it makes more sense to use our money on research and public health than carbon trading," Gubler said. "We could do an awful lot, around the world, with not very much money."

Allen, a Washington-based writer, is the author of "Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver" (W.W. Norton, 2007).

This article was published in the The Washington Post on Monday, January 10, 2011. Please read the original article here.
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