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Washington Post Examines Theories On Climate Change’s Potential Impact On Disease Spread

The Washington Post examines the debate among scientists over the impact climate change might have on the spread of infectious diseases, and the potential for a rise in the number of tropical diseases in the U.S. The article describes how extreme weather conditions, such as flooding and drought – “thought to be linked to the warming of the oceans and to changes in the precipitation cycle” – can create ideal conditions for waterborne disease.  Additionally, “[b]iological first principles suggest that warmer weather, by causing organisms to grow faster, will expand the range of disease-carrying insects and microbial pathogens,” which some models suggest could lead to a rise of such tropical illnesses as Chagas and leishmaniasis in the U.S, according to the newspaper.

The piece also explores the theory that “rather than broadening the range of tropical infectious diseases, climate change would just shift the burden.” Though experts vary on the extent with which climate change could contribute to an increase in rates of disease transmission, “[m]any biologists say there is little reason to think that climate change will trump human efforts against such diseases in the future,” the newspaper notes.

The article also notes that some specialists say that climate change hasn’t been the major driver of disease spread in the last two centuries and that human behavior has had a big impact. “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,” the newspaper writes. 

The story looks at dengue along the U.S.-Mexico border and cholera in Haiti and includes quotes by Harvard biologist Paul Epstein; Duane Gubler of the Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases in Singapore; Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, a researcher at Johns Hopkins; and Joshua Rosenthal of the National Institute of Health’s Fogarty International Center. It also pulls from published scientific articles, authored by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and Kevin Lafferty, an ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara (Allen, 1/10).

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