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Climate change is aggravating human pathogens

According to new research, more than half of infectious diseases have been exacerbated by the various hazards that are associated with environmental breakdown, posing a significant threat to life on Earth. 

Polio has returned, monkeypox isn’t slowing down, and COVID-19 still lingers in the shadows – basically, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have noticed that alongside the steady deterioration of our environment, the threat to human health has been growing.

But if you’ve seen Bill Gates’ famous Ted Talk from before any of us even understood the realities of a lockdown, you’ll know this was to be expected.

As he warned, a global pandemic is one of the likeliest things to cause a massive social disturbance and, ultimately, end the world.

Well, according to new research, this may be on the horizon, because 58% of infectious diseases (218 of the 375 we know of) have been exacerbated by the various hazards associated with climate change.

The exhaustive study, which was conducted by scientists at the University of Hawaii, discovered that outcomes of our ceaseless greenhouse gas emissions are both aggravating pathogens and weakening our immune systems.

Climate Effects on Health | CDC

The triggers include droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, extreme precipitation, and rising sea levels, to name just a few.

Analysing over 70,000 existing papers – some of it evidence stretching back 700 years before the advent of the man-made climate emergency – on the direct links between environmental breakdown and infectious diseases, they concluded that these events are bringing pathogens closer to people.

‘We became distressed by the overwhelming number of available case studies that already show how vulnerable we are becoming to our ongoing growing emissions of greenhouse gases,’ says the study’s co-author, Kira Webster.

‘If there are pathogens that cause us harm, climate change is trying to get to every single one of them. For me it’s shocking we don’t take this more seriously.’

In short, there are now more than 1,000 different pathways to worsen the spread of zika, malaria, and dengue (among others), a ‘cavalcade of risks too numerous for comprehensive societal adaptations.’

Spaghetti chart showing pathways connecting climate disaster types, like flooding and heat, and specific types of pathogens, like bacteria and viruses.

From warming and changed rainfall patterns expanding the range of vectors like mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas, to storms and flooding displacing people and relocating them in the heart of outbreaks, the situation is rather dire indeed.

Especially given the World Health Organisation has already cautioned that the climate crisis could undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction.

It’s also estimated that an additional 250,000 people will die each year from 2030 to 2050 due to proliferating diseases, malnutrition and heat stress.

‘We are opening a Pandora’s Box of disease,’ says Camilo Mora, who led the research.

‘Because of climate change, we have all these triggers all over the world, over 1,000 of them. There are diseases out there just waiting to be unleashed. It’s like we are poking a stick at a lion – at some point the lion will come and bite us in the ass.’


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