Climate Change and Infection

In Guns, Germs and Steele, Jarod Diamond argued that European nations became dominant because of advantages of geography. As is obvious from the title, infections played a role. Diamond believes that Europeans weren’t as successful in colonizing tropical areas as areas in temperate climates because Europeans lacked immunity to tropical germs. His work came to mind when I read this report in The New York Times of an example of human activity which altered nature. Partially because of global warming, a village in Italy has had an outbreak of a virus previously only seen in the tropics:

Aided by global warming and globalization, Castiglione di Cervia has the dubious distinction of playing host to the first outbreak in modern Europe of a disease that had previously been seen only in the tropics.

“By the time we got back the name and surname of the virus, our outbreak was over,” said Dr. Rafaella Angelini, director of the regional public health department in Ravenna. “When they told us it was chikungunya, it was not a problem for Ravenna any more. But I thought: this is a big problem for Europe.”

The epidemic proved that tropical viruses are now able to spread in new areas, far north of their previous range. The tiger mosquito, which first arrived in Ravenna three years ago, is thriving across southern Europe and even in France and Switzerland.

And if chikungunya can spread to Castiglione — “a place not special in any way,” Dr. Angelini said — there is no reason why it cannot go to other Italian villages. There is no reason why dengue, an even more debilitating tropical disease, cannot as well.

“This is the first case of an epidemic of a tropical disease in a developed, European country,” said Dr. Roberto Bertollini, director of the World Health Organization’s Health and Environment program. “Climate change creates conditions that make it easier for this mosquito to survive and it opens the door to diseases that didn’t exist here previously. This is a real issue. Now, today. It is not something a crazy environmentalist is warning about.”

Climate change creates the potential for areas outside of the tropics to face new infectious diseases. At least, should we be faced with new infections in the United States, conservatives who do not believe in global warming should have nothing to worry about–just as conservatives who do not believe in evolution have no need to receive a new influenza vaccine each year as the flu virus evolves to become resistant to the previous year’s vaccine.

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