El Nino might have effects reach further than the weather

26th Feb 2016

The recent outbreak of Zika has stolen headlines around the world. Cities are declaring states of emergencies, South American nations are battling the church about birth control in an attempt to keep babies from being born with microcephaly, and the World Health Organization is doing everything it can to find a vaccination or a way to kill off the mosquitoes that carry the virus. Meanwhile, abnormal weather patterns, including extreme heat and cold, rain and drought, plague regions around the world. What is the connection between these phenomena?

 

It turns out that El Nino, the weather pattern that occurs every two to eight years, when ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific rise due to a change in the normal wind direction, affecting temperatures and weather patterns around the globe, might have had an effect on mosquito numbers. The shifting precipitation and temperature patterns may have created ideal conditions for mosquitoes to thrive. This El Nino has been dubbed one of the strongest in over fifty years. In the UK, El Nino tends to mean heavy rain in warmer months, and heavy snow in winter months, but each El Nino is unique. The most extreme effect was in 1950 when fifteen inches of snow fell in just three and a half hours on the Isle of Wight. This past year’s floods have competed with that record.

When it comes to Zika, there are still many unanswered questions – can it be transmitted sexually, is there a direct link to microcephaly (condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads), how long will it take to develop a vaccine, and what triggered the explosive outbreak? There have been over a million cases of Zika in Brazil, plus some in twenty other nations and territories, such as Puerto Rico, Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, and even the US states of Florida and Texas. Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, Laurie Garrett, claims that the outbreak was triggered by “a perfect storm” of economic, biological, and climatic events.

Here’s what we know about the virus, according to Mother Jones:

Zika was first identified in monkeys in Uganda’s Zika Forest in 1947
The first serious outbreak occurred in 2007 in Micronesia, where up to 60 people were infected, followed by cases in French Polynesia and on other Pacific islands. The current outbreak, which started late last year in Brazil, is the most serious yet and the first one in the Americas
Zika is carried by Aedes aegypti, the same species of mosquito that carries dengue fever, yellow fever, and Chikungunya
Deaths from the virus are rare. People can contract the virus if they are bitten by a mosquito that has previously drawn blood from another infected person; apart from mother-to-foetus transfer, there’s no evidence yet of person-to-person transfer
There is no vaccine or treatment

This combination of factors shows that humans are in a battle against nature. The human population has soared since the Agricultural, and subsequent Industrial Revolutions. Nature employs various population controls, most of which humans have found ways to get around, via healthcare or technology. As viruses and diseases become more complex, researchers work tirelessly to beat them to the punch, making sure that the public is able to take the necessary measures to keep from getting infected, or infecting others. The climate is clearly out of order; and the exacerbation of the Zika outbreak shows that there are to be more unintended consequences of our constant pumping of carbon into the atmosphere.

As California takes its time to fix the methane leak displacing thousands of residents, South American women try to keep from getting pregnant or bitten by infected mosquitoes, Britons work to repair inundated homes and highways, we must take a step back to realise that climate change is creating more and more situations that prove ideal for the worst outcomes. El Nino is a natural phenomenon, but extremes are being witnessed even in off years. Humans, out of necessity, turn to technology and innovation to stave off the worst effects of nature’s unexplained wrath, while history is being made. Will Brazil see a generation of children with smaller brains?

Will the next El Nino be part of the combination of factors that incites another public health crisis? Will the decimation of mosquito populations have unintended consequences? Are we too late to fix the damage already done? Only time will tell; there are no borders in such crises and we must, therefore, unite and take caution.
Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

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