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Was the Ebola Crisis Linked to Climate Change?

By Natasha Cary

Photo credit: Pixabay

There is no denying that the recent outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa has had catastrophic consequences. According to the World Health Organisation, the outbreak was the largest and most complex since the deadly virus was first discovered back in 1976. [1] The cases and deaths which have resulted from the outbreak outweigh those of any other year combined. Ebola’s spread has been particularly disastrous due to the weak health and infrastructure systems of the African countries it has affected. As a disease with no guaranteed cure and a fatality rate of 50 %, [1] it is clearly vital to understand whether certain factors (such as climatic changes) influence the likelihood of an outbreak, and to use this information to better control future crises.

Ebola symptoms can at first appear flu-like - including fever, sore throat, headache and muscular pain and weakness. [2] Symptoms can, however, develop rapidly into gastrointestinal illness, rashes, impaired kidney and liver function and eventually internal bleeding. Early symptoms mimic those caused by many other, less serious diseases and therefore it can be difficult for medical professionals to diagnose Ebola in its initial stages. If Ebola is suspected, blood and body fluid samples can be taken to diagnose whether the virus is present; a positive diagnosis warrants transfer to a high level isolation unit. [2]

The potentially fatal virus is named after the Ebola River in equatorial Africa. [3] Although little is known about either Ebola’s natural reservoir or its vector, all documented outbreaks have been associated with tropical forest and the virus is suspected to have been living harmlessly in fruit bats for years and has since spread to other forest animals such as chimpanzees and gorillas. [2] Its occurrence may be due to (or linked to) a number of reasons, suggesting it may prove difficult to determine exactly what has made this outbreak so horrific. These include human invasion of previously uninhabited tropical areas, changes in the ecology or natural reservoir of the virus, mutation and possibly even climate change. [3]

Climate change has been strongly linked to many infectious disease outbreaks. Increased greenhouse gas emissions have led to global and oceanic warming, as well as changes in precipitation – effects which can impact the transmission and magnitude of certain diseases. For example, Cholera thrives in warm water and so elevated sea surface temperature may exacerbate disease outbreaks. [4] Other diseases, such as Malaria and Dengue fever are predicted to expand in their geographical ranges as global temperature increases. [4]

Ebola is most likely affected by precipitation – sudden changes from drier to wetter conditions were linked to Ebola outbreaks in the 1990s. [3] As the planet warms, it is expected that precipitation extremes will intensify. Nevertheless, changes will not be uniform across the globe; droughts may become more frequent in some areas, whilst others can expect heavier rainfall events. [4] It is likely that places experiencing variable precipitation throughout the year will witness increasingly sudden shifts from exceptionally dry to exceptionally wet periods and that it is areas like these which will be left most vulnerable to outbreaks of Ebola. [4] It is, however, an extremely challenging task to make forecasts on a regional scale or to make precipitation predictions for different areas of Africa.

Although it remains difficult to determine definitively whether the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak is linked to changes in rainfall, there is widespread evidence that changes in other infectious disease outbreaks have resulted from alterations to global temperature and precipitation patterns. Further surveillance of this outbreak may lead to better insight into which factors have played a part in the worst incidence of Ebola seen since its discovery. Until such research takes place, the best way to stall progression of the outbreak is to implement and improve public health measures in sanitation, clean water supplies and vaccinations, as well as insuring vulnerable areas have maximum preparedness for the impact such crises. [4]


References

  1. WHO, 2014. Ebola virus disease. [Online] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/ [Accessed 22 October 2014].
  2. NHS, 2014. Ebola virus disease. [Online] Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/ebola-virus/Pages/Ebola-virus.aspx [Accessed 22 October 2014].
  3. C. Tucker et al., American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, 2002, 68, 147-152.
  4. A. Fritz & J. Samenow, 2014. Will climate change worsen Ebola outbreaks?. [Online] Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2014/08/05/will-climate-change-worsen-ebola-outbreaks/ [Accessed 22 October 2014].


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