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Op-ed: The next threat from climate change? Mosquito-borne ‘Zika’

First Published      Last Updated Jan 15 2016 06:09 pm

A hotter, more humid world is already becoming a world of more serious virulent infectious diseases. West Nile, dengue fever, chagas, Lyme disease, yellow fever, chikungunya, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis and malaria are just a few of the many infectious diseases spreading far beyond their previous geographic confines.

Global temperatures aren't the only things that broke records in 2015. The number of victims of dengue fever in Brazil reached 1.58 million, an all time high, 20 times more than in 1990. Heat, precipitation and humidity augment the life cycle, reproduction and even biting activity of mosquitoes and other insects that carry these diseases. Even the viruses, bacteria and parasites carried by the insects can have their survivability exponentially enhanced by warmer temperatures.



In the West, where drought is the ugly twin sister of global warming, one gram of blowing desert dust can harbor a billion microorganisms capable of spreading SARS, influenza, meningitis and foot and mouth disease. Valley fever (coccidioidomycosis), spread by fungal spores in Western dust, has seen the number of cases increase 850 percent, afflicting hundreds of thousands.

Many insect-borne diseases never before seen in the United States have arrived at our doorstep. One of these is a truly frightening new kid on the infectious disease block called "Zika." It is spread by mosquitoes, and erupted this year in Brazil after an unusually hot and rainy "El Niño" summer and the worst flooding in 50 years.

One in five people infected with Zika will develop symptoms, the most common of which are mild fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis typically lasting about a week. All these other infectious diseases are bad enough, so why all the new fuss about Zika? If a pregnant mother contracts Zika, her baby can develop a freakish, devastating deformity called microcephaly — i.e. unusually small skull and brain, the result of incomplete brain development.

The first case of Zika in the Western Hemisphere was reported in Brazil last May. In less than eight months, Zika has infected between 500,000 and 1.5 million Brazilians. Since October, 3,530 microcephalic babies have been born in Brazil, over 24 times more than all of last year. An explosive and terrifying epidemic is under way. Most mothers whose babies were born with the defect reported Zika symptoms during pregnancy. The virus has been isolated from placentas, amniotic fluid, and from brains of two of the babies that died from it. Brazilian health authorities state there's no question Zika is the cause. The CDC has said, "The evidence is becoming very, very strong of the link between the two."

Brazil is in full-blown panic mode. The country's health ministry declared Zika a national emergency even though its connection with microcephaly is not completely understood or conclusively proven. The Brazilian government has deployed thousands of army troops and inspectors making door to door searches for mosquito breeding grounds like stagnant pools of water. Brazilian officials have even gone so far as to advise women to avoid getting pregnant if at all possible. The director of the South American Institute of Government in Health, predicted 15,000 babies will be born with microcephaly in Brazil in 2016.

Zika is one immigrant we should be frightened of crossing our border. The virus has reached 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries including Mexico and Puerto Rico. The CDC has warned Zika will reach the U.S. and there is now a confirmed case in Texas and another in British Columbia. The mosquito species that transmits the Zika virus is found throughout the world, and common in Florida and along the Mexican border.

Global warming deniers are already in a scientific no mans's land, in defiance of physics, atmospheric chemistry and climate science — if not the scientific method itself. To brush off the rise in infectious diseases they are increasingly in defiance of medical and biologic science as well.

At the top of the list of reasons to act with urgency on the climate are the public health consequences if we don't. You can add Zika, and the epidemic of microcephaly, to that long and growing list.

With every passing month, the stakes for humanity's future are rising in lockstep with temperatures and sea levels. For years, the mascot of climate change has been a polar bear stranded on a floating patch of ice. The new mascot should be — the heart-breaking picture of a baby with microcephaly.

Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

 

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