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Mosquitos, Disease, and Climate Change — Oh My!

Mosquitos are hot right now. Well, from a news perspective. We see lots of stories exploding in the media about the rapid spread of the Zika virus in Latin America. Expectant parents or those planning families in South, Central, and North America are very concerned.

The virus is not at all deadly: the flu-like symptoms are mild and last only a few days.  The big panic is about the dramatic rise in Microcephaly, a condition that causes heads of newborns to be smaller or misshaped. In every place where the zika virus has been growing, so have the cases of microcephaly in newborns. Scientists are scrambling to better understand this condition and its possible connections to the Zika virus in pregnant women.

As a result of the large outbreaks of both zika and microcephaly in Latin America, countries including Ecuador, El Salvador, and Columbia, currently encourage women to delay getting pregnant until the communities can get the outbreak and the mosquito populations under control. There is also work on a vaccine. The situation is serious enough that the US government has issued travel warnings about it.

Late Friday, U.S. health officials said pregnant women should consider postponing trips to 14 destinations – Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Suriname and Venezuela. Pregnant women told to avoid countries with Zika outbreaks. Pregnant women told to avoid countries with Zika outbreaks

Today the World Health Organization (WHO) met to discuss the growing crisis and how to respond. Below is a report from National Public Radio

WHO Director General Margaret Chan called the meeting for Monday in Geneva to decide whether the Zika virus outbreak rises to a public health emergency that would be of international concern.

[UPDATE: The WHO declared Zika Virus an International Emergency. Two cases were reported in Australia. Where there is a case in Texas that apparently spread through sex, the real danger is for people in the developing world who do not have the government or community resources required to adequately deal with mosquito populations. Even so, Florida is taking steps to prepare for the warmer weather with the increase of mosquito populations.

Climate Stew Crew member, Prescott Allen Hazleton, also sent me an important articles: Climate Change Could Tell Us Where the Zika Virus will spread next. Melanie Harken writes:

Larvae of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus, as seen in a lab in Brazil on Jan. 26. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Larvae of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus, as seen in a lab in Brazil on Jan. 26. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“We’ve seen these migrations before,” said Hotez, citing the 2013 outbreak of chikungunya virus in the Southwest and earlier outbreaks of dengue in Texas and along the Gulf Coast.

“The role of climate change is still unclear, but I think it has to be looked at very seriously,” he added. “Flooding following periods of drought leads to collecting pools of water, allowing mosquitoes to breed, and warmer temperatures allow them to emerge less seasonally, so they can be coming out and feeding all year.”

This is by no means the first time global warming has been implicated in outbreaks of such diseases; the rising incidence of Lyme disease and other tick-carried diseases appears to be climate-related as well.

Then there’s El Niño, which is heating up temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, especially along the coast of South and Central America. “It’s interesting that it coincides with spread of Zika. Whether they’re all causally related we don’t know, but it’s certainly important to follow up on,” Hotez said.

Warming temperatures and waters are not the only environmental factor experts are investigating when it comes to Zika. They also cite socioeconomic factors such as population growth, urbanization, and poverty, and the related environmental consequences.

This is a big important story, and one that requires calm and thoughtfulness. It also provides us an opportunity to help our friends, families, and neighbors understand how climate change can affect the life in the the USA. ]

How Can we Prepare for Zika Virus and Protect Communities in the Americas?

Questions and fears about Zika and microcephaly are swirling now in the USA. Will it reach US states and how can citizens prepare? Researchers have predicted that because of climate change we will see an increase of diseases spread by mosquitos. When it comes to diseases like West Nile Virus, which first came to the USA in the 1990’s and has since spread every state except Hawaii and Alaska, there are simple ways to prevent infection.

In our original Climate Stew podcast series, That Day in Climate History, we time-travel to 150 years into the future to learn how mosquitos brought disease and how humans addressed the crisis. In a time of panic we are here to insert rationality as we remind ourselves and each other that we are not helpless victims. Here are practical steps to protect our families and communities. Listen to audio (transcript below)

Transcript

That Day in Climate History

I am Timothy Meadows. It is Saturday, March 2nd, 2165 and time for That Day in Climate History. During the 21st Century, along with the relentless rising temperatures, mosquito populations throughout the world grew at an alarming rate. Earlier springs and hotter summers proved ideal conditions for flying pests.

As their territories expanded ever northward, so did the rapid spread of West Nile Virus.
Fortunately only one in five people infected with West Nile Virus exhibit symptoms. These include “a fever” along with “headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea, or rash. Most people with this type of West Nile virus disease recover completely, but fatigue and weakness can last for weeks or months.” Still with the growing number of cases, so did the risk to public safety.

WNVflyerFirst discovered in Uganda in 1937, major outbreaks of West Nile Virus occurred in Algeria in 1994 then in Romania in 1996. The first reported American case was in Queens, NYC in 1999. By the year 2005 over 600,000 people from every US state except for Hawaii and Alaska contracted West Nile Virus resulting in over 750 deaths. 20 years later in 2025 the number of reported cases exploded to over 3 million.

While there is still no cure or vaccine for any of the nine different strains of West Nile Virus, rates of infections dropped dramatically after 2025 with the introduction of community-based initiatives aimed at educating the public on how to reduce mosquitos’ access to standing water where they most often breed. With the use of creative and even humorous advertisements and posters, an entire generation learned personal protection measures to avoid mosquito bites. These have been passed down through the years and have become standard practice in most households and schools today. In addition, privately and publicly funded projects sprung up to aid the poor in the installation of screens on windows and doors, and to provide solar powered fans in doorways to keep mosquitos from entering.

Through vigilance and discipline along with the controversial use of chemical pesticides, most people today do not suffer from West Nile Virus. On this day in 2165 we remember that day in climate history.

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Peterson Toscano

Author: Peterson Toscano

Peterson Toscano is a quirky queer Quaker concerned about Climate Change. His website is www.petersontoscano.com

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