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Ecologists Question Effects of Climate Change on Infectious Diseases

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Senegalese gather water and do laundry in the Senegal River at Richard Toll
Above: Senegalese gather water and do laundry in the Senegal River at Richard Toll. This is one of the most intense transmission sites known for schistosomiasis (a blood fluke transmitted by aquatic snails). In addition, nearly everyone gets malaria during the wet season. Climate change in this region is likely to increase temperatures and reduce precipitation, impacting local agriculture, while potentially decreasing transmission of schistosomiasis and malaria. But climate is not the major issue affecting disease at Richard Toll. In 1986, damming of the Senegal River for irrigation led to spectacular increases in habitat for intermediate host snails and mosquito vectors. These changes led to an explosion of disease among an immigrant population drawn to work in the new sugar cane fields. Photograph by Kevin Lafferty. [larger version]

Recent research has predicted that climate change may expand the scope of human infectious diseases. A new review, however, argues that climate change may have a negligible effect on pathogens or even reduce their ranges. The paper, written by Kevin Lafferty of the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Ecological Research Center, has sparked debate in the ecological community.

Lafferty is a marine ecologist whose study of parasites in coastal ecosystems led him to investigate how climate change will affect the role of diseases around the world. In a forum in the April issue of Ecology, he suggests that instead of a net expansion in the global range of diseases, climate change may cause poleward range shifts in the areas suitable for diseases as higher latitudes become warmer and regions near the equator become too hot.

The newly suitable areas for diseases will tend to be in more affluent regions where medicines are in widespread use and can more readily combat the diseases, Lafferty says. He cites model estimations that the most dangerous kind of malaria will gain 23 million human hosts outside of its current range by the year 2050 but will lose 25 million in its current range.

"The dramatic contraction of malaria during a century of warming suggests that economic forces might be just as important as climate in determining pathogen ranges," Lafferty says.

Mercedes Pascual of the University of Michigan sees the situation very differently. Pascual is the lead author of one of five papers published in response to Lafferty in the journal's "Forum" section. Although she agrees that disease expansion in some areas could be accompanied by retraction in others, she emphasizes that disease range does not always correlate with the number of humans infected. In regions of Africa and South America, for example, humans have historically settled in high latitudes and altitudes. If climate change makes these areas more fit for mosquito breeding and for pathogen development, she writes, then the number of infections could expand. She notes that scientists are already seeing evidence of this pattern.

"It would be very unfortunate if the conclusions in Lafferty's paper were taken as evidence that climate change does not matter to infectious diseases," Pascual says. "Range shifts will matter and should be better understood."

Lafferty agrees that range shifts mean there will be winners and losers among human populations. Knowing how disease ranges will shift, instead of assuming a global expansion of diseases, will be the key to distributing resources effectively, he says.

Scientists have used the fact that infectious diseases are most prevalent in the tropics to argue that warmer, wetter conditions that might occur under climate change would lead to an increase in infectious disease transmission. However, Lafferty points out that climate change isn't making the whole world warmer and wetter: warming trends over the past 60 years have led instead to an increase in hot, dry, desertlike climates. Furthermore, he says, infectious diseases don't all increase during warm, wet weather. Meningitis peaks during the tropical dry season, for example, and influenza is an obvious staple of winter weather in temperate climes.

Pascual argues, however, that humans have a history of altering the landscape to suit their needs and thus might unintentionally create better habitat for disease carriers. For example, humans seldom leave accessible arid areas alone; instead, they irrigate them for use as farmlands. According to Pascual, the creation of water sources could provide havens for mosquitoes, and thus malaria parasites, to remain in areas that would otherwise dry out.

"We live in a world in which urban and rural areas are increasingly interfacing with each other," says Pascual. "This underscores the challenges for predicting the Earth's changing environment."

Lafferty agrees that climate isn't the only issue that affects disease ecology, and maintains that climate may play only a small part in determining disease ranges.

"If we overemphasize the role of climate, which we have little control over, at the expense of other factors that drive disease dynamics, we may be missing the forest for the trees," he says.

The full reference for Lafferty's paper is: Lafferty, K.D., 2009, The ecology of climate change and infectious diseases: Ecology, v. 90, no. 4, p. 888-900, doi:10.1890/08-0079.1 [URL]. The five Forum papers published in response to Lafferty can be accessed through links at URL

Related Web Sites
The ecology of climate change and infectious diseases
Forum - Climate Change and Infectious Diseases

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cover story:
CO2 May Help Wetlands Keep Pace with Sea-Level Rise

Erosion Doubles Along Alaska's Arctic Coast

Shrinking Beaufort Sea Coastline

Rapid Disappearance of Antarctica's Ice Shelves

Effects of Climate Change on Infectious Diseases

Outreach Diamondback Terrapin Survival

Science Fairs in Falmouth, MA

Meetings Coastal Erosion Workshop in Ghana

Awards Findings Used to Preserve Coral Reef

Ted Melis Receives DOI Meritorious Service Award

High-Flow Experiment from Dam Leads to Awards

Researchers Receive DOI Meritorious Service Awards

Miles Receives Diversity Award

Group Honored for Research on Alaska

Government Communicators Award

Staff Team Wins Silver in Curling Club Nationals

Publications May 2009 Publications List U. S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
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