It's impossible to turn on the TV in the US today without hearing about two topics: The 2016 Presidential campaign or the Zika virus. At times, both can leave the viewer somewhat disturbed and disconcerted, but at least the campaign is confined to the US borders; Zika is spreading across borders and bodies of water at an alarming rate.
The symptoms of the Zika virus in adults are reported to be mild; fever, rash, headache, and joint and muscle pain. One could expect these same symptoms with a common cold, or weaker strain of the flu virus. However, for developing babies, the Zika virus is potentially catastrophic. Zika is thought to be linked to the birth defect called microcephaly, which is characterized by a small head and incomplete brain development. The life expectancy for babies with this birth defect is short.
Despite being around since the 1940s, the Zika virus has only been a fixture on the news in recent weeks, given the enormous number of people infected. Its potential impact on developing fetuses has only been uncovered in recent months, due to the vast number pregnant women that have become infected in Brazil, ground zero for the outbreak.
Record high temperatures during the summer months, rapid urbanization and poor sanitation in Brazil created ideal conditions for the proliferation of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the species responsible for transmitting the Zika virus from one person to another. Thanks to our ever-connected global society, the virus has already spread beyond Brazil to much of South America, all of Central America and parts of the Caribbean. There is concern that it can penetrate far north into the eastern United States during boreal summer.
While it's impossible to link the excessive heat in Brazil, and the subsequent outbreak of Zika in the Americas, conclusively to climate change, the current situation raises the question of whether climate change will generate more public health concerns. Many regions of the world that harbor mosquitoes, and thus, mosquito-borne viruses, are projected to get hotter and wetter in the coming decades. Heat waves are expected to increase in frequency, and this, coupled with rapid urbanization and poor sanitation in many developing countries, can lead to conditions that allow mosquitoes to flourish, rapidly transmitting diseases throughout the human population, overwhelming and overtaxing the health care system.
Agriculture, property, infrastructure, and now health care: Not one sector or structure is immune from the impacts of climate change. The Zika virus is providing another reminder that unless we mitigate climate change, the financial and human toll has the potential to be exorbitant.
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change, Disaster risk, Pollution
Location: Brazil, South America