The Zika virus: One more symptom of a sick climate

The Zika virus: One more symptom of a sick climate

By Flannery Winchester

The Zika virus has rapidly gained notoriety in past weeks, and for good reason. The outbreak, which began in Brazil in May 2015, has subsequently spread to 21 countries and territories and counting. The virus usually just causes mild, non-fatal symptoms in those it infects directly, but the really alarming development is the suspected link between Zika and microcephaly, a birth defect Brazil has noticed increasing in its newborns—more than 4,000 since October.

mosquito

On Thursday, World Health Organization Director Margaret Chan said the spread of the Zika virus is “deeply concerning” and announced that the WHO would convene an emergency meeting on Monday to tackle the disease.

Diseases like these exemplify the truth that climate change is bringing about challenges we often can’t anticipate. That unpredictability is as real and present a danger as Zika itself.

Helped along by climate change

Aedes mosquitoes are responsible for the speedy transmission of the Zika virus, and these mosquitoes live and breed in almost the entire region of the Americas, except for Canada and continental Chile. The Pan American Health Organization “anticipates that Zika virus will continue to spread and will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.”

Climate change has already wrought changes that aid the spread of these mosquitoes. Writing in TIME, Dr. Marilyn Parsons, a Professor of Neglected Infectious Diseases and Director of Training and Professional Development at the Center for Infectious Disease Research, said, “As temperatures increase and rainfall patterns change, mosquitoes and other insects can remain active for longer seasons and thrive in new areas.”

So it’s reasonable to anticipate the virus spreading even further as warming continues. As each subsequent year gets hotter and rainfall patterns get less predictable, conditions might change enough that new areas become favorable for these mosquitoes—and this virus. When these mosquitoes can comfortably range into Canada, continental Chile and other previously mild areas, new and not-yet-immune populations will be susceptible to Zika. 

Solutions that don’t quite solve it

Given the current and future danger from this and other mosquito-borne diseases, the hunt is on for an effective management technique. Ideally, scientists would develop a vaccine, but that is a years-long process. One solution from the British company Oxitec is to release genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Brazilian city of Piracicaba. When the GM mosquitoes mate with wild females, the resulting larvae hatch but die before adulthood. The company started trials in April, which have “reduced wild mosquito larvae by 82 percent.”

While that may be a triumph when considering mosquito-borne diseases in isolation, there could be unforeseen and unintended consequences of this genetic modification on the ecosystem as a whole. Instead of introducing another complicating variable to an already volatile situation, a more conservative long-term solution would be to remove the variables making it so volatile in the first place: too much carbon and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

The only real advice officials can offer right now is to avoid catching Zika in the first place, by using insect repellant, removing small pools of water where mosquitoes can breed, and sleeping underneath mosquito nets. And, most frighteningly, women are being advised to postpone pregnancy. El Salvador even went so far as to recommend its female citizens delay pregnancy until 2018. In countries where birth control access is limited and abortion is often illegal, avoiding pregnancy is a rather extreme and impractical solution.

Protecting earth is protecting ourselves

As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, pointed out in The Guardian, “A civilization where one can’t safely have a baby is barely a civilization.” And that’s the real problem —not that we’re unequal to combating and containing the Zika virus, but that climate change is presenting new and ever less predictable challenges to human life. If it’s not Zika, it will be superstorms in areas that haven’t seen such weather before. It will be heat waves at levels humans can’t handle. It will be droughts that drive people out of rural areas and into overburdened cities.

So as we figure out a solution to this current outbreak and its likely future expansion, we should recognize it as a symptom of the larger global sickness of climate change. The spread of this virus shows that stopping climate change is no longer just about saving the environment. It is, in no uncertain terms, about saving ourselves.

Flannery Winchester
Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Deputy Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.

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