Report lists ‘deadly dozen’ climate change health risks

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Pathogens like cholera, ebola, plague and tuberculosis could spread into new regions as a result of climate change, argue health experts, who call for closer monitoring of wild animals as the best preparatory measure.

The pathogens were listed in a report published on 7 October by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which outlines dangerous diseases expected to spread geographically as temperatures increase and precipitation levels change. 

Others include avian influenza, intestinal and external parasites, yellow fever, sleeping sickness or tick-borne diseases such as babesia. 

According to WCS, the best defence against these risks is wildlife monitoring, as detecting how the diseases are moving can help health professionals “learn and prepare to mitigate their impact”.

“The health of wild animals is tightly linked to the ecosystems in which they live,” said WCS President Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, explaining that even minor disturbances could have far-reaching consequences on what diseases they might encounter and transmit as climate changes. “Monitoring wildlife health will help us predict where those trouble spots will occur and plan how to prepare,” he added.

His comments are backed by the observations of a global avian influenza (AI) surveillance network, which has monitored the movements of AI in the world’s wild bird populations since 2006. The network underlines that monitoring wildlife populations for potential threats is essential for preparedness and prevention strategies and that “expanding monitoring beyond bird flu to other deadly diseases must be our immediate next step”.

While the ‘deadly dozen’ may potentially impact upon both human and wildlife health, it will also affect global economies, notes the society. The pathogens that originate from or move through wildlife populations, such as avian influenza, “have already destabilized trade to a large extent and caused significant economic damage,” said the authors. 

Despite efforts to monitor wildlife pathogens, “few data exist on how diseases will spread in response to climate change,” notes WCS.

The rise in extreme weather phenomena such as heat waves, floods and forest fires in Europe has drawn EU policymakers’ attention on the need to define strategies to adapt to the already occuring effects of global warming. 

In June 2007, the Commission adopted a Green Paper on Adapting to climate change in Europe, proposing several options for action to deal with the health effects of climate change too. 

A Commission Communication on adaptation to climate change is expected before end of the year.

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