How climate change can cause viruses like monkeypox

·3 min read

Global warming may be a contributing factor in the spread of diseases like monkeypox to non-endemic areas.

Monkeypox was designated a global health emergency by the World Health Organization on July 23.

While the monkeypox virus is endemic, or commonly found, in some West African countries, the first reported cases in 2022 had no established travel links to endemic areas, according to the WHO. The first 2022 case of human monkeypox was reported on May 17 in Portugal.

Increase in disease happens when there’s crowding or more people moving to an area, exposing them to new diseases, said Heidi Brown, associate professor at The University of Arizona, but there are also shifting disease patterns that can be attributed to climate change.

Brown researches vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, spatial epidemiology and climate change.

Warming has the impact of speeding up virus replication, increasing the probability of humans coming into contact with diseases or disease vectors, she said.

In her own words, Brown answers questions on the spread of infectious diseases and how science deals with the outbreaks.

Will climate change cause the spread of more viruses like monkeypox?

The evidence that’s out there suggests pretty strongly that we will start to see changes in the distribution of the diseases that we see. The idea of humans encroaching on animal habitat, if you’re thinking specifically about zoonosis, yeah we expect to see more of those interactions.

We also see human diseases just from crowding. When you have climate refugees that don’t have places to go to, we’ll start to see some of these changes in disease patterns.

The evidence weighs pretty strongly that we’ll see more infectious diseases and different ones in different places. But then each disease has its own transmission cycle, mode of transmission, so we’ll see, I think, variability in the different diseases, in what kinds of diseases we might expect to see versus diseases that might not change because of climate change.

We will start to see pretty significant changes in infectious disease incidents and numbers of cases, and most importantly where they’re happening.

Is current science equipped to handle changes in infectious diseases?

I don’t do vaccine development, but I think that what we saw with COVID was phenomenal. I don’t think that most of us appreciate how phenomenal it was to go from “What the heck is this?” to a vaccine that was so effective, so quickly and so safe.

Maybe pre-COVID if [I had been] asked that question I would be like ‘I don’t know, it takes a long time to get vaccines developed and make sure they’re safe” and I would have those caveats. But I am inspired by those groups, those teams that came together and figured out how to safely make a vaccine to be able to do this.

I also don’t think we should minimize the other components that will be important to disease control, so hand washing and maintaining that and thinking about surfaces and communities adopting the capacity to recognize social distancing.

As terrible and depressing as COVID has been, I also think there’s also components of it that are maybe inspiring or should be inspiring to us. As we look forward, it will be hard because the diseases are changing and if we don’t fully adopt, then we create breaks that the virus, the pathogen, whatever that organism is going to slip through.