"Deadly Dozen" Diseases Could Stem From Global Warming

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Climate change has already thrown ecosystems off balance, experts say.

For example, bird flu—which can "jump" to humans, as it did to cause the Spanish flu of 1918—may be worsened by drought. Wild birds that carry the disease have been seen drinking alongside domesticated birds at scarce water sources.

(Related: "'Bird Flu' Similar to Deadly 1918 Flu, Gene Study Finds" [October 5, 2005].)

Such behavior has created a "loss of natural boundaries [that] natural hosts have evolved," said Kristine Smith, assistant director of Global Health Programs for the society.

And as certain regions warm, disease-carrying parasites such as ticks and mosquitoes will expand into new territories that are unprepared for the parasites' arrival, the authors added.

Jeff McNeely, IUCN's chief scientist, said that the "ecology of climate change is receiving inadequate attention.

"To me, the most important part of climate change is that it's changing the distribution of ecosystems, and diseases tend to be specific to ecosystems," McNeely told National Geographic News.

Warning Systems

On-the-ground monitoring has already been shown to work, said the Wildlife Conservation Society's Karesh.

In Brazil forest communities that spot primates sick with yellow fever report back to their health agencies, which in turn start vaccinating for the mosquito-borne illness.

In the Republic of the Congo a group of local hunters has been trained to pinpoint symptoms of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in animals. The strategy has led to three years without a single human case in that region, said Karesh.

The Global Avian Influenza Network for Surveillance also draws on indigenous knowledge through a system of people in 34 countries, who monitor wild bird populations for signs of sickness.

Of course, other unnatural forces are contributing to the spread of disease, experts added.

For instance, the illegal wildlife trade, especially robust in Asia, is bringing people and animals into closer quarters, said the Wildlife Conservation Society's Smith.

The 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was traced to civets. The cat-size mammal, prized for its meat, had ended up in wildlife markets in China, she said.

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