"Deadly Dozen" Diseases Could Stem From Global Warming

Christine Dell'Amore in Barcelona
National Geographic News
October 7, 2008

A spike in deadly infectious diseases in wildlife and people may be the "most immediate consequence" of global warming, according to a new report released today.

Dubbed the "deadly dozen," sicknesses such as Lyme disease, yellow fever, plague, and avian influenza, or bird flu, may skyrocket as global shifts in temperature and precipitation transform ecosystems.

Babesia, cholera, Ebola, intestinal and external parasites, red tides, Rift Valley fever, sleeping sickness and tuberculosis round out the list. (Read descriptions.)

An "early warning system" based on an international wildlife-monitoring network may be the only effective defense, said William Karesh, a report co-author and vice president of Global Health Programs at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Observing wildlife could yield crucial signals of potential outbreaks.

"Without the presence of wildlife, we would be clueless about what's going on in the environment," Karesh told a briefing at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Barcelona.

"Why wait until people are sick and dying?"

Out of Sync

Of 14,000 known infectious organisms, 600 are shared between animals and humans.

The deadly dozen were chosen by the conservation society's health experts as some of the most ominous health threats.

"The reason we want to draw attention to [microbes] is they're difficult to see, they have devastating effects, and we also don't think about them until it's too late," Karesh said.

Since microbes and wildlife have evolved together over time, animal species have developed adaptations to cope with the organisms. So disease spikes usually point to something "out of sync with nature," Karesh said.

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