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‘Tis the Season to Be Frightened

The climate crisis, which Republicans dismiss en masse, is a key ingredient in the spread of infectious diseases.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout, after Edvard Munch)

Ebola, Dengue fever, West Nile virus, valley fever, Lyme disease, hantavirus: Republican ideology created some of these threats in the first place, or managed to make others worse. And the climate crisis, which Republicans dismiss en masse, is a key ingredient in all of them.

Nothing works better for Republicans running for office than shameless fear mongering. “The Democrats won’t protect you!” is a recurrent underlying theme of Republican ads, going back at least to the Reagan era, with a Russian bear stalking us in the woods.

These days, it’s immigrants stealing your job and the food right out of your mouth. Bad guys are waiting to shoot you, while the Democrats are trying to disarm you. Obamacare is destroying your health care. Russian tanks will be arriving in your cul-de-sac any minute, although it doesn’t matter because ISIS will get there first looking to stage the next beheading. But the latest Republican boogieman is Ebola, for it is only a door knob away, and blood could be pouring out of your eyeballs by tomorrow morning – vote Republican.

Republican ideology created many of these threats in the first place, or managed to make others worse. The same is true of Ebola and far more pervasive infectious diseases that aren’t in the headlines. And the climate crisis, that Republicans dismiss en masse, is a key ingredient in all of them.

Scientists in Gabon and Congo have traced a 2007 Ebola outbreak to a massive migration of fruit bats into stricken villages just prior to the epidemic. Local hunters, desperate for food, shot thousands of fruit bats with their shotguns, and villages were awash with bat corpses. The virus had lived quietly in the bats for years and then was transmitted to villagers exposed to the bats’ blood and bodily fluids. Then, 186 people suffered miserable deaths from the infection.

According to a NASA analysis of meteorologic satellite data, Ebola outbreaks correlate with heavy rains at the end of a period of intense aridity. Extremely dry conditions force some fruit trees to defer fruiting. When the rains come and the stricken trees put out fruit, all manner of fruit-starved species, including Pteropus bats and apes, gather to feast. Large numbers of creatures concentrated under newly fruit-heavy trees provide microbes such as Ebola a prime opportunity to jump from one species to another. And once Ebola starts circulating heavily in a new species such as apes or bats, it can readily be transmitted to humans. Nearly 5,000 people have already died from the current Ebola outbreak. The World Bank calculates the economic cost to West Africa at $33 billion. The humanitarian crisis is far-reaching. The West African social fabric is unraveling, health systems have been stretched beyond the breaking point and trust in governments shaken.

Regrettably, but predictably, American politicians are pandering to those who see the Ebola crisis only through the lens of their own personal risk.

If that’s the best one can do, then consider this: A growing body of research suggests that pathogens that jump from animals and insects to people are spreading more rapidly because of climate change and deforestation. Hotter temperatures drive moisture into the atmosphere, causing droughts, followed by periods of heavy rain, climatic conditions particularly well suited for vector spread diseases. In fact, these extreme weather patterns, which are happening more frequently with a warmer climate, are disrupting ecosystems and tilting the balance of predator and prey relationships that normally keep disease vectors like insects and rodents under control.

If you live in the South and experience a sudden onset of fever, severe headache, muscle and joint aches, and large bleeding blisters, it is much more likely to be dengue fever than Ebola. With a warming climate, mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever have moved north out of South America and recently crossed the US border – leading to outbreaks of dengue fever in Texas and Florida. Children under 15 are at greatest risk for the most severe and fatal version of the disease, dengue hemorrhagic fever. A person can be stricken by dengue fever multiple times, and recurrent infections are more likely to lead to bleeding, seizures and death. Mosquitoes capable of transmitting dengue fever are now found in 28 states.

Mosquito-borne malaria already kills over 1 million each year, and climate change will worsen the disease burden. Malaria outbreaks can now be accurately predicted just by the temperature forecast.

Scientists recently discovered that many of the largest cholera outbreaks of the past century started as a result of warmer ocean temperatures that allowed algae species and commensal pathogenic cholera bacteria to proliferate and ultimately infect human populations.

The algae bloom that poisoned the Lake Erie water supply for 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, this summer was multi-factorial, but one of the components is warmer water temperatures.

West Nile Virus (WNV) is another vector disease with a strong climate connection. WNV is usually asymptomatic, but about one in five people will experience flu-like symptoms for a week or two. But about one in 100 victims will be stricken with WNV encephalitis, leading to permanent brain or spinal cord damage or death (1).

Currently there are 10 cases in Colorado of children hospitalized with weakness or paralysis of arms or legs. Polio, WNV and enteroviruses are the most likely culprits.

Lyme disease was identified in the late 1970s due only to the activism of a group of Connecticut mothers who insisted that state health officials investigate a pattern of childhood arthritis around the town of Old Lyme. It has emerged from obscurity to become one of the leading vector-borne diseases in the United States, often carrying with it a potpourri of aches and pain, fatigue, misery, anxiety and depression. The symptoms can often evolve over time in bewildering, pernicious ways. For many of its victims, it can destroy their life styles, their finances, their careers, and it can even be fatal. The 27,203 confirmed new cases reported to federal health authorities in 2013 marked nearly a 25 percent jump over the previous year.

Ten percent of the population of southern New England has evidence of a previous Lyme disease infection. But the northward spread of Lyme disease, carried by the black-legged tick, which rides on deer, rodents and dogs, is now making an appearance in Canada. The CDC believes climate change may be a factor, and this spring, the EPA added Lyme disease to its list of climate change indicators.

In the early 1990s, the big scare in infectious diseases in the Western United States was the hantavirus, carried by rodents, which killed about 37 percent of its victims from fulminant respiratory failure. A six-year drought in the Southwest had whittled away the ranks of owls, snakes and coyotes, while heavy rains that ended the drought fattened supplies of pine nuts and grasshoppers, both of which allowed the local deer mice population to mushroom 10-fold. Deer mice encounters with humans increased exponentially, and the virus living in their feces ended up in the airways of humans, with catastrophic results.

In Europe and Western Russia, hantavirus infections have been much more widespread, reaching near-epidemic proportions. A warmer climate appears to be enhancing food availability for the voles that harbor the virus.

Chagas is another debilitating, insect-borne disease endemic to Latin America, which with global warming is starting to move northward. About 300,000 people in the United States now have the disease.

Change in climate and precipitation are leading to increasingly severe and frequent dust storms called “haboobs,” in the Southwest. Enough dust also reaches the United States from Asia and even from the Sahara Desert that it actually impacts domestic air quality. Microbiological research conducted to date has identified a wide range of dust-borne pathogenic microorganisms that can move hundreds, if not thousands of miles, through the atmosphere. One gram of dust can contain as many as one billion microorganisms – bacteria, fungi and viruses. During one dust storm, a person can inhale up to 7 grams of dust (2).

Multiple diseases can be acquired from inhalation of desert dust – influenza, SARS, meningitis, foot and mouth disease, hantavirus, pneumonia, upper respiratory infections and silicosis.

Coccidioidomycosis, otherwise known as valley fever, or cocci, is a disease caused by inhaling the microscopic spores of Coccidioides immitis, a soil-dwelling fungus. Rising temperatures and extreme fluctuations in moisture levels, create a hospitable environment for the cocci. During the hot months, when other surface organisms die off, cocci are able to survive in deeper soil. Then when rain falls, the fungus grows freely without competing organisms. Cocci is endemic to the Southwest desert – California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas. Dry, hot, windy conditions, intensified by climate change, can disperse it widely.

Once the cocci invade the lungs, they can travel in the blood and lymph systems, allowing spread to the rest of the body. The pathogens can target any organ – but especially the nervous system, skin, bones and joints – and become life threatening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, from 1998 to 2011, there was a tenfold increase in reported cases; officials call it a “silent epidemic,” far more destructive than had been previously recognized. At present, according to the American Academy of Microbiology, about 200,000 Americans contract valley fever annually, and about one in a 1,000 of them will die. The elderly and the immune-compromised – including pregnant women – are most susceptible. Many experts believe the disease is vastly underreported.

In Jan. 2014, the New Yorker ran a feature article titled, “Death Dust.” It chronicled the rise in the number of cases of valley fever and told the stories of just a few of the disease’s victims in California.

Recently, 28 construction workers installing solar facilities in San Luis Obispo County came down with the disease. Cocci researchers typically work in Bio Safety Level 3 labs: HEPA-filtered air, seamless floors and ceilings and negative pressure rooms. At Stanford, a center of valley fever research, a group of obstetrics students got it, even though their classroom was a full two stories above the cocci lab.

One patient, a 26-year-old white woman who caught valley fever four years ago, said the antifungal medicine made her vomit nonstop. She was temporarily paralyzed, underwent three brain surgeries, and has had 22 spinal taps. Not long after her diagnosis, the doctors told her mother to make funeral arrangements. Now they tell her she will be on antifungals, funneled through a shunt in her brain, for the rest of her life. The medication, Fluconazole, can cost up to $3,000 a month and doesn’t destroy the fungus, but merely keeps it in check.

The connection between the climate crisis and a rising tide of life-threatening infectious diseases is indisputable. As desperation for food in poor countries rises in lockstep with drought, floods and global temperatures, governments, social safety nets and preventive infrastructure will falter. Animal and insect-borne diseases will inevitably spread, and new ones will appear. Wherever war breaks out, infectious diseases always follow. With global travel and connectivity as never before, US citizens are no longer insulated from the human crises and diseases that emerge in other countries or even in other states. Health care denied in Texas means greater health risks in California.

So who will best protect you from Ebola? A party that dismisses scientific consensus on climate as a hoax? A party that doesn’t believe in evolution will protect you from rapidly evolving, deadly organisms? A party that blindly defunds scientific research that somehow will bring us miraculous vaccines and cures? A party that denies our own citizens health care will somehow control the spread of infectious diseases? A party whose only answer is higher walls and more guns? Seriously?


1. Ryan J. Harrigan, Henri A. Thomassen, Wolfgang Buermann and Thomas B. Smith. “A continental risk assessment of West Nile virus under climate change.” Global Change Biology (2014) 20, 2417–2425, doi: 10.1111/gcb.12534

2. Blue, J. A. 1938. “Dust – its effect on man from a medical standpoint with special reference to the dust bowl.” Southern Med. J. 31:1101-1106.