Climate change, flu and you (1/27/11)
Changing Weather, Changing Bugs
La Nina oscillates year by year with El Nino throughout the Pacific, changing wind, humidity, and hurricane conditions around the world. Yet the results may affect more than weather – it may also be part of major flu pandemics.
The last 4 major flu outbreaks took place during La Nina.
Why they are connected is something of a mystery. Yet it appears that bird migrations change dramatically with each La Nina. Migrating with the birds are the microorganisms that inhabit them. Most mammals are individual ecosystems, containing a dizzying variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi, rickettsia, and prions.
Birds carry flu. They also carry bird flu.
Engineering New Epidemics
Recently two labs, one in the US and the other in the Netherlands, were asked not to publish their important scientific results.
Both had found ways to make bird flu airborne – and potentially ferociously lethal.
The research had begun with the idea of trying to find out what does make a virus virulenct – and what can be done to prevent it. In this particular case, especially in Amsterdam, the potential lethality of the results exceeded expectations.
A few tweaks of several different DNA base pairs, and an artificial, far more damaging virus was born.
As of this writing, the researchers have agreed not to publish all their results – so as not to make terrorists fully cognizant of how to create a new biological weapon.
Yet everyone now knows it’s expensive to create lethal bird flu but relatively simple – with the right equipment and personnel.
The other question is whether the “small” changes brought about by climate change will themselves be enough to turn benign viruses into more fatal varieties.
Do we want to find out?
Human and Viral Population Change
Hurricanes and natural disasters are a lot more economically costly than they used to be – though not as lethal.
The costs have gone up, according to the magazine the Economist, because more of the world’s economy has moved to the coasts.
One estimate of property around vulnerable US coastlines sets its value at approximately 10 trillion dollars. Katrina was a minor storm as hurricanes go – but look at the devastation it produced.
Yet the real increase in urban populations is and will occur in developing countries. Cities like Kolkata and Jakarta will be true mega cities, rivaling Shanghai and Tokyo as centers of population and perhaps technology. All of them are low lying.
They will also be densely populated. Great proximity of people also makes it easier for pandemics to spread – and for bugs to mutate.
As may occur with flu or bird flu.
Of course, for such epidemics there must also be contact with animals, like pigs and birds.
That’s where global climate change becomes increasingly problematic.
Mutation and Climate
Climates have changed rapidly in the past. Many argue human civilization has only succeeded because we have lived in a relatively warm period during the recurrent Ice Ages that scour the Earth.
However, when climates change more quickly, mutations also have a chance to spread. A changing climate is one that all organisms – viruses as well as people – must adapt to. Major changes in climate may eventually lead to genetic changes throughout many organisms.
Viruses change a lot faster than human genomes.
Global climate change may increase the risk of extensive property damage. Yet another risk will be different – to the cumulative immune capacity of humanity.
Our immune boosting technologies may improve. Yet recent results in antibiotic resistance – and antibiotic research – are not hopeful.
Today more and more bugs are drug resistant. New TB strains may be truly untreatable with antibiotics. Hospital infectious disease specialists are forced to use today drugs passed over in the 1950s due to toxicity – because present day bugs have not developed resistance to them – yet.
The economic and political dislocations of climate change will provoke different strategies. Energy conservation may eventually come to the forefront, as decreasing greenhouse gas production has not yet worked.
Yet the biological effects of climate change may prove every bit as disturbing as the economic, political, and social ones. They may also be highly unpredictable.
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