What impact will climate change have on pathogens?

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A study from the University of Liverpool (UK) has assessed the effects of climate change on the distribution and incidence of infectious diseases in Europe, reporting that the impact could be greater than previously thought.

There has been growing evidence to suggest that climate change could impact the burden of infectious diseases – potentially altering their distribution, incidence and severity or seasonal cycles. The first author of the new study, Marie McIntyre (University of Liverpool) commented: “Although there is a well-established link between climate change and infectious disease, we did not previously understand how big the effects will be and which diseases will be most affected.

“Climate sensitivity of pathogens is a key indicator that diseases might respond to climate change, so assessing which pathogens are most climate-sensitive, and their characteristics, is vital information if we are to prepare for the future.”

The study, published recently in Scientific Reports, is the first to carry out a large-scale assessment of climate impact on pathogens in Europe. Using the Enhanced Infectious Disease Database (EID2), the team carried out a systematic review of the literature on the 100 human and 100 animal pathogens with the greatest health burden. The researchers discovered that approximately 63% of the pathogens assessed were climate sensitive, in addition, nearly two-thirds of these were sensitive to more than one climate driver, suggesting the impact of climate change would be multifaceted and complex.

Vector-borne diseases were demonstrated to be the most climate sensitive. Moreover, the diseases with the largest numbers of climate drivers included Vibrio cholera, Fasciola hepatica, Bacillus anthracis and Borrelia burgdorferi. The team also reported that zoonotic pathogens are more sensitive to climate factors than animal- or human-only pathogens. This could have implications for emerging infections, 75% of which are zoonotic.

The study highlights sensitivity to climate among a number of important pathogens, and could help policy makers prioritize surveillance and strengthen climate change resilience. However, the researchers note that the response of a pathogen to climate change may also be influenced by other factors, for example, travel, trade and land-use.

McIntyre concluded: “Currently, most models examining climate effects only consider a single or at most two climate drivers, so our results suggest that this should change if we really want to understand future impacts of climate change on health.”

Want to find out more? Read our piece looking at climate change and climate modelling in infectious diseases here: What can climate-driven models teach us about the Zika outbreak?

Sources: McIntyre KM, Setzkorn C, Hepworth PJ, Morand S, Morse AP & Baylis M. Systematic assessment of the climate sensitivity of important human and domestic animals pathogens in Europe. Sci. Rep. 7, 7134. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-06948-9 (2017) (Epub); www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-08/uol-rte073117.php

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