Zika File: Global Warming is Driving 'Neglected' Tropical Diseases Our Way

click to enlarge Zika File: Global Warming is Driving 'Neglected' Tropical Diseases Our Way
Centers for Disease Control
The deadliest creatures on the planet don’t consume their prey outright. They sip them. These stealthy meals are hardly felt at all—until the itch sets in. Then you know: Mosquito.

Mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile, chikungunya, and Zika—strange-sounding and remote to most American ears—are given little attention until they rush our shores to puncture our awareness in daily headlines and newscasts.

Until the recent rise in reports of malformed babies started generating low-grade panic in pockets of Texas and Florida and points in between, these diminutive bloodsuckers had been relegated largely to mere “pest” status. Sure there have been spikes of concern with the rise and fall of each tropical virus, but we've ignored the constant generation of potentially crippling new diseases beyond our borders.

Our circles of compassion too often collapse at national borders, allowing entrenched killers like malaria to continue to claim the lives of an estimated 600,000 men, women, and children (mostly children) every year across the planet’s tropical belt.

Today's national Zika debates over how to fund a proper response have stuck in the miasma of our polarized politics. Historically anemic funding of mosquito surveillance and control efforts here in Texas have left our political leaders discussing with straight faces how best to distribute cans of bug spray to the most at risk.

But for those who think shrunken-headed babies is the worst it can get: Prepare to be overwhelmed.

The colluding forces of poverty, globalization, and climate change have set the stage for a rapid cascading of public-health crises in the United States, according to one of Texas’ leading experts on tropical disease. In other words, as-yet-unrecognized nasties are already preparing to displace incoming Zika from the top of our news cycle.

“We’re in for a long haul of new or old infectious epidemics that are accelerating rapidly,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told Mark Goldberg on the “Global Dispatches” podcast earlier this year. “And we’re just not prepared.”

Thanks to human-caused climate change, epidemics of novel-sounding viruses are likely to accelerate in Texas. In fact, the quickening is already evident. Ten years after first showing its face in Texas, a West Nile virus outbreak in 2012 resulted in an unprecedented 1,800 infections here, resulting in 89 deaths. These days, mosquito-control yard signs staked into DFW lawns, where half of all 2012 cases occurred, are hard to miss.

The halting reemergence of dengue, or “breakbone fever,” is again badgering state residents, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley. During a 2005 outbreak, the CDC estimates that one in three Brownsville-area residents were exposed to the virus.

Sometimes mistaken for dengue in its manifestation in severe joint pain, chikungunya (menacingly translated as: “to become contorted”) started collecting its own domestic headlines in 2006 and 2007 and has since been observed in most U.S. states, including Texas, though exclusively as a travel-related import outside Florida—where Zika is also now putting down roots.

For some time, climate change’s expansion of warmer, wetter tropical weather across the U.S. South has been blamed for driving more tropical disease our way. What has been missing from that analysis is community-level research showing just how this may unfold.

That gap is beginning to be filled in thanks to the work of a Texas Tech University graduate student. As I wrote in detail for Texas Climate News recently, preliminary results from Kelly Neely’s work in buggy Brownsville is demonstrating that potential disease carriers will increase in Texas as the earth continues to warm.

That doesn’t necessarily translate into more infections; policy responses could partially mitigate the threat. Support for the World Health Organization’s call for an international campaign to fight neglected tropical diseases is vital, as is the reduction of poverty both here and abroad that allows these killers to develop and spread. At a federal and state level, it calls for ramping up monitoring, prevention, and control measures.

Locally, individuals can do their part by eliminating backyard breeding habitat and patching those screen doors and windows.

More importantly, we need to do everything we can to check the “neglected” disease march by acting aggressively to slow global warming. Sure, we can keep the fossil-fuel throttle wide open and simply wait for it to get too hot in Texas for the disease-carrying mosquitoes to breed. We could reach that threshold this century, according to Neely.

That would unseat the stealthy mosquito. It could unseat us, as well.

Even after Texas' first Zika-related death this week in Houston—a child struck with microcephaly—few are discussing Harris County's Executive Director of Public Health Dr. Umar Shah’s admonition that this potentially crippling wave of mosquito-borne illness is “not something we can spray our way out of of.”

Poverty, almost as much as the mosquitoes themselves and the warming climate moving them deeper into the United States, is a key risk factor here in San Antonio and around the world that few are willing to talk about.

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