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First warmer, then sicker

Climate change redistributes bacteria, allowing diseases to reach new populations

February 25, 2007|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

CORDOVA, ALASKA — Oysterman Jim Aguiar had never had to deal with the bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus in his 25 years working the frigid waters of Prince William Sound.

The dangerous microbe infected seafood in warmer waters, like the Gulf of Mexico. Alaska was way too cold.

But the sound was gradually warming. By summer 2004, the temperature had risen just enough to poke above the crucial 59-degree mark. Cruise ship passengers who had eaten local oysters were soon coming down with diarrhea, cramping and vomiting -- the first cases of Vibrio food poisoning in Alaska that anyone could remember.

"We were slapped from left field," said Aguiar, who shut down his oyster farm that year along with a few others.

As scientists later determined, the culprit was not just the bacterium, but the warming that allowed it to proliferate.

"This was probably the best example to date of how global climate change is changing the importation of infectious diseases," said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, acting chief of epidemiology at the Alaska Division of Public Health, who published a study on the outbreak.

The spread of human disease has become one of the most worrisome subplots in the story of global warming. Incremental temperature changes have begun to redraw the distribution of bacteria, insects and plants, exposing new populations to diseases that they have never seen before.

A report from the World Health Organization estimated that in 2000 about 154,000 deaths around the world could be attributed to disease outbreaks and other conditions sparked by climate change.

The temperature change has been small, about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 150 years, but it has been enough to alter disease patterns across the globe.

In Sweden, fewer winter days below 10 degrees and more summer days above 50 degrees have encouraged the northward movement of ticks, which has coincided with an increase in cases of tick-borne encephalitis since the 1980s.

Researchers have found that poison ivy has grown more potent and lush because of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In Africa, mosquitoes have been slowly inching up the slopes around Mt. Kenya, bringing malaria to high villages that had never been exposed before.

"It's going to get very warm," said Andrew Githeko, a vector biologist who heads the Climate and Human Health Research Unit at the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Kisumu. "That's going to mean a huge difference to malaria."

Githeko, 49, grew up in the central highlands in a tiny village near the town of Karatina, about 5,700 feet above sea level.

His home was different from most of Africa. The air was damp and chilly. On clear days, he could see the glaciers on Mt. Kenya, the second-highest peak in Africa at 17,058 feet.

When he was a child, lowland diseases like malaria were unknown in Karatina. But perhaps 10 years ago, a smattering of cases began to appear.

He had long ago left his home to study the great plagues of Africa -- Rift Valley fever, malaria, cholera and others. The appearance of malaria in the highlands, however, was a mystery worth returning home for.

Githeko dispatched a colleague to collect mosquito larvae in puddles and streams around Mt. Kenya, some as high as 6,300 feet. Tests later identified some of the mosquitoes as Anopheles arabiensis, one of the species that carry malaria.

Githeko's findings, published in 2006, marked the highest A. arabiensis breeding site ever recorded in Kenya and was the first published report of malaria infections in the central highlands, he said.

He knew by watching Mt. Kenya's gradually disappearing glaciers that his world was warming, and that lowland diseases would eventually work their way higher. "But we did not expect this to happen so soon," he said.

Githeko's work has been echoed in a small number of studies around the world.

In 1996, health authorities reported a human case of tick-borne encephalitis in the Czech village of Borova Lada, elevation 3,000 feet. Until then, the Ixodes rinicus tick, which carries the disease, had never been seen above 2,600 feet.

The case caught the attention of Milan Daniel, a parasitologist the Institute for Postgraduate Medical Education in Prague who has been studying the movement of ticks in the Czech Republic for half a century.

He scoured the Sumava and Krkonose mountains and found that the ticks had migrated as high as 4,100 feet largely because of milder autumns over the last two decades, according to a series of studies published over the last four years.

From 1961 to 2005, the mean temperature in the Krkonose Mountains had increased about 2 1/2 degrees.

"This shift of the ticks," Daniel said, "is clearly connected with climate changes."

According to a landmark United Nations report released this month, global warming has reached a point where even if greenhouse gas emissions could be held stable, the trend would continue for centuries.

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