Climate change can make most human diseases worse

Polio is back, monkeypox isn’t abating, COVID-19 is still around — and now there’s more not-so-good news on the infection front: over 200 human diseases could get worse because of climate change, according to a new study.

Scientists have long known that the changing climate affects disease. Warmer temperatures can make regions recently inhospitable to disease-carrying mosquitoes, while flooding from more frequent storms can carry bacteria in the water waves.

However, most research only focused on a handful of threats or one disease at a time. The new study, published in Nature climate changebuilt a comprehensive map of all the ways different climate hazards can interact with 375 documented infectious diseases in humans.

The authors reviewed over 77,000 scientific articles on these diseases and climate hazards. The found that of these 375 diseases, 218 could be exacerbated by things like heat waves, rising sea levels and wildfires.

The study found four main ways climate change worsens diseases. Firstly, problems arise when changes lead to disease-carrying animals moving closer to humans. For example, animal habitats are disrupted by things like wildfires that drive bats and rodents into new areas, making them more likely to transmit diseases like Ebola to humans. Other research shows that climate change makes viruses more likely to jump from animals to humans, as happened with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This phenomenon also likely contributed to the 2016 Zika outbreaks.

People also move closer to disease-causing animals during climate-driven events. Diseases such as cholera and Lassa fever were linked to human movement after storms and floods. Third, climate hazards also give pathogens a boost – like how disease-carrying mosquito populations grow in warmer temperatures. Finally, climate change makes people less able to cope with diseases. For example, large fluctuations in temperature can weaken the human immune system, which can be the cause of flu outbreaks.

If you’re interested in taking a closer look at exactly all the diseases affected, the study authors built an interactive chart that links each disease to the climate hazards that exacerbate it. So you can see, for example, how droughts, fires and floods make health problems caused by sandflies – including fever and parasitic skin diseases – more common. Happy (or not so happy) to roll!

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