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Health officials warn painful diseases will become a major threat this decade: 'There's a lot of unknowns'

"It's spreading northwards."

"It’s spreading northwards.”

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Global heating will cause several painful diseases prevalent in tropical countries to become a major threat to the rest of the world over the next decade, health officials warned in a recent report by the Nature Climate Change journal.

"There's a lot of unknowns," cautioned Céline Gossner, who leads a team on emerging food- and vector-borne diseases at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Solna, Sweden. 

What's happening?

The report noted that climate change, globalization, and the increase in international trade and travel are all contributing factors to the continent of Europe becoming more susceptible to vectors of debilitating and potentially deadly pathogens that lead to increased risk of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

"People are catching, and sometimes dying from, NTDs and other mosquito-borne diseases that were once confined to the tropics, such as West Nile, Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses, as well as parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis," the report stated. "Cases of vector-borne diseases that are already endemic in Europe, such as leishmaniasis, are on the rise."

However, the scope of the problem is not limited to Europe, as other parts of the non-tropical world, such as the Gulf Coast of the United States, "are experiencing similar issues," according to Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. These warnings come in the wake of a report from earlier in November where a 2022 study predicted that global heating will worsen 58% of pathogens that cause infectious diseases in humans.

Why is this concerning?

These diseases "have the potential to become significant threats to public health," the report stated. For most of them, there are no available antiviral therapies.

The report also noted that "it is clear that climate change has created suitable conditions for the emergence or re-emergence of NTDs." For example, there were 1,112 locally acquired cases of West Nile in 11 countries in Europe in 2022, the highest since a peak of 1,548 in 2018.

"It's in most of southern Europe," said Gossner, "and it's spreading northwards."

It's reached a point where European physicians need to be aware of the possibility of NTDs being acquired locally and not just during foreign travel.

"Part of our job is being watchdogs not only for our patients, but also for public health," said Camilla Rothe, a clinician specializing in tropical health at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany.

What can be done about it?

For now, more research and analysis is required, as the journal noted that "understanding the risk that these diseases pose depends on knowing where vectors are present and how they are behaving."

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has taken steps on that front with a project called VectorNet that it runs in collaboration with the European Food Safety Authority. VectorNet "compiles data on the distribution of disease vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks and sand flies across Europe and the Mediterranean region."

Further understanding of the way vectors affect the environment can help lead to the development of vaccines and treatments for these diseases.

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