UNEP’s Governing Council 21 to 25 February
Nairobi, 21 February 2005 - Scientists are linking a rise in new and previously suppressed infectious diseases with the dramatic environmental changes now sweeping the planet.
Loss of forests, road and dam building, the spread of cities, the clearing of natural habitats for agriculture, mining and the pollution of coastal waters are promoting conditions under which new and old pathogens can thrive.
Experts cite the case of the highly pathogenic Nipah virus which until recently was found normally in Asian fruit bats.
Its emergence in the late 1990s as an often-fatal disease in humans is being linked with a combination of forest fires in Sumatra and the clearance of natural forests in Malaysia for palm plantations.
Bats, searching for fruit, were forced into closer contact to domestic pigs giving the virus its chance to spread to humans via people handling swine.
Climate change may aggravate the threats of infectious diseases in three ways experts suggest.
Firstly by increasing the temperatures under which many diseases and their carriers flourish, and secondly by further stressing and altering habitats.
For example, the geographic range and seasonality of two of the world’s most serious mosquito-borne infections, malaria and dengue fever, are very sensitive to changes in climate. Also, Neissseria meningitidis, a common cause of meningitis, can be spread many miles in the dusty conditions that occur following prolonged drought in the Sahel.
Thirdly, climate change may increase the number of environmental refugees who are forced to migrate to other communities, even countries.
This in turn will also favour the spread of diseases from one location to another where the population may be more susceptible.
These are among the findings from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its latest Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2004/2005 under the section ‘Emerging Challenges—New Findings’.
The report on the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases is based on new research by some of the leading experts in the field.
These include Tony McMichael of the Australian National University, Bernard Goldstein of the University of Pittsburgh and Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “ It promises to be a momentous year for the United Nations as a whole and UNEP in particular. In September, nations will gather in New York for a meeting of the General Assembly to evaluate how far we have gone in achieving the Millennium Development Goals”.
“A Task Force, appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan, has concluded that the environment is the cornerstone upon which the Goals are likely to stand or fall. The report on the rise of infections underlines this fact. MDG 6 calls on the global community to reverse the spread if HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases,” he said.
Mr Toepfer added:” If environmental degradation is not checked then, it is clear from these new findings that this will be harder and tougher to achieve. There are implications for many of the other Goals from poverty eradication to the delivery of universal primary education for all. People who are sick are less able to work and children who are ill find it harder to attend and concentrate at school”.
The issue of environmental degradation and a rise of many new and old infectious diseases is a complex, sometimes subtle, one that is causing increasing concern among scientists and disease specialists.
Overall it seems that intact habitats and landscapes tend to keep infectious agents in check, whereas damaged, altered and degraded ones shift the natural balance thereby triggering the spread to people of new and existing diseases.
Many leading experts are now convinced that ecological disruption, dramatic environmental change, and poor handling of human and animal wastes are playing an important part.
Other phenomena also favour the spread of infectious diseases, including international travel, technological change and the globalization of trade in agricultural and other products.
In a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Prof McMichael argues that the emergence of many infectious diseases 5,000 to 10,000 years ago was a result of humans coming into increasing contact with animals as people established settlements.
The main cause of long-distance spread of infectious diseases, from around 500 years, ago was through war and conquest during the period of European exploration and imperialism in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Today the changing pattern of infectious diseases is as much due to environmental change as to trade, travel, migration and social conditions, according to Prof McMichael.
Lyme disease is a bacterial disease occurring in North America, Europe and Asia. Symptoms include headaches, rashes, fatigue and muscle and joint pains. In some cases there can be cardiac and mental problems.
It is transmitted by the bite of infected ticks, no bigger than a pin-head. The ticks live on deer. The bacteria that cause the disease are found to a large extent on mice.
Studies in Dutchess County, north of New York City, have linked the high incidence of Lyme disease there with changes in the forest habitats as well as social factors.
Firstly forest fragmentation has led to a loss of rodent predators such as wolves and birds of prey which in turn has led to a increase in the white-footed mouse population.
Secondly, more recent patchy reforestation has increased the numbers of deer and thus the numbers of ticks.
Finally, middle class suburban sprawl and the increasing use of these woodland areas for recreation such as camping and hiking has brought humans into greater contact with the larger number of infected ticks.
The rate of Lyme disease in Dutchess County in the past decade has been running at 400 cases per 100,000 people. There were an estimated 23,000 infections in the United States in 2002.
The expansion of mining and other extractive industries can increase the incidence of diseases like malaria.
Deforestation and road building often disrupt forest and river systems increasing the habitats for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Migration of workers into previously inaccessible areas is increasing the population at risk.
One study from the gem-mining areas in Sri Lanka has shown that they have become epicentres of malaria. The shallow pits left behind by the gem miners have become ideal breeding grounds for the mosquitoes.
Mercury pollution may be aggravating the situation> Studies from Brazil suggest. Mercury, used in small-scale gold mining, may increase peoples’ susceptibility to malaria by depressing their immune systems.
In addition, the World Health Organization has recently estimated that some six per cent of malaria cases in some part of the world during the last 25 years are as a result of climate change.
Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, is a parasitic disease that leads to chronic ill health.
It is a major health risk in the rural areas of Central China and Egypt and continues to rank high in other developing countries including many in Africa.
Freshwater snails, known as Biomphalaria glabrata, serve as reservoirs for the disease. Water flow changes and changes in water chemistry associated with dams like the Aswan Dam in Egypt and irrigation schemes on the Senegal River, are being linked with an increase in the snail population and thus cases of Schistosomiasis.
Overfishing in Lake Malawi is also being linked with a similar problem there. Over harvesting has led to a fall in the number of snail eating fish triggering an increase in the disease-carrying snails, according to a paper by Dr Jonathan Patz and others published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
The Year Book report links the emergence of many other old and new diseases with environmental change. Like malaria, Japanese encephalitis and dengue hemorrhagic fever are transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, which also thrive in standing water.
Increasing level of rubbish and solid wastes in developing countries-- a result of increasing consumerism, poor collection and refuse handling services, fly tipping, lack of re-cycling schemes and inadequate disposal site-- are aggravating the problem.
Discarded plastic bags, old tins and car tyres offer, when filled with rainwater, perfect new breeding opportunities for disease carrying insects.
Increased and unplanned urbanisation, lack of proper waste water management schemes in many developing country cites and population growth, are also important factors in the spread of these diseases.
The GEO Year Book also links yellow fever, Kyasanur Forest disease and Ebola with deforestation and its knock-on effects.
Land use change, in the form of agriculture, is linked with the rise and spread of diseases like Western and Venezuelan equine encephalitis and Typhus.
Tuberculosis, Bubonic Plague and Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome are linked with unplanned urbanization.
Chemicals and antibiotics in farm animal wastes are helping to make disease-causing bacteria more resistant to drugs with implications for infections such as Hepatitis and some diarrheal diseases.
Meanwhile air pollution from transport and factories is linked with increased incidence of respiratory infections. Pollution of coastal waters from raw untreated sewage is a key factor in cholera outbreaks worldwide.
Notes to Editors
The Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2004/2005 can be found at www.unep.org on 21 February 2005.
Other issues in the Year Book include the impact of climate change on ocean circulation; the changing face of the Earth as seen from space including the spread of greenhouses in Spain; state of the environment reports from the regions and a look back at significant environmental developments in 2004.
More detail on the diseases mentioned including symptoms, geographical spread and control measures can be found at the World Health Organization site http://www.who.int/topics/en/ and at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention site http://www.cdc.gov/node.do/id/0900f3ec8000e035
The UNEP Governing Council web site can be accessed at
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