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Scientists make disturbing discovery while studying West Nile virus: 'A critical public health challenge'

The findings exemplified how studying environmental conditions can help better understand certain airborne viruses.

The findings exemplified how studying environmental conditions can help better understand certain airborne viruses.

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Scientists in Europe made a concerning discovery about the effect our changing climate has on the West Nile virus.

What happened?

As detailed by Phys.org, researchers from the University of Brussels published a study in the journal Nature Communications last month after evaluating the relationship between our changing climate and the West Nile virus

Diana Erazo and Simon Dellicour from the Spatial Epidemiology Laboratory found that the ongoing warming of the planet has led to an increase in the presence of the virus in parts of Europe.

"Our results point towards a significant responsibility of climate change in the establishment of West Nile virus in the south-eastern part of the continent. In particular, we identify that current West Nile virus hotspots in Europe are most likely to be attributed to climate change," said Erazo, first author of the study and post-doctoral researcher at the Spatial Epidemiology Lab. 

"Our results also demonstrate a recent and drastic increase of the population at risk of exposure. While this increase is partly due to an increase in population density, we show that climate change has also been a critical factor driving the risk of West Nile virus exposure in Europe."

The findings exemplified how studying environmental conditions can help better understand certain airborne viruses. 

"Our work illustrates how climate data could be effectively used in an epidemiological context by estimating the past and present-day ecological suitability of the virus, filling another analytical gap between climate science and epidemiology," said Dellicour, supervisor of the study and head of the Spatial Epidemiology Lab. 

"With climate change emerging as a critical public health challenge, future work should explore the evolution of infectious disease distributions under different scenarios of future climate change to inform surveillance and intervention strategies."

Why is this concerning?

Though rare, West Nile fever is not a fun experience. While most human infections are symptomatic, Phys.org noted that "25% of victims develop symptoms such as fever and headache, and less than 1% develop more severe neurological complications that can lead to death."

The source of the virus is typically mosquito bites, as the virus cycles through mosquitoes and birds. As global temperatures increase, so too do mosquito populations from having a longer yearly period of favorable weather in many areas. From there, the virus can multiply more quickly, so regions that were once free of the virus and other similar diseases are now beginning to experience them.

Europe isn't alone in dealing with a recent rise in tropical diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported there were 2,406 cases of West Nile Virus in the United States last year. Europe's version of the CDC reported 707 cases and 67 deaths in 2023.

Similarly, Rio de Janeiro has seen a significant spike this year in cases of dengue, which is another disease carried by mosquitos, per the BBC. Our warming planet is one of the leading factors in the increased risk of tropical diseases in various parts of the world.

What can be done about this?

There is no current vaccine for West Nile virus, though most people who contract it recover on their own.

However, it's essential to stay informed about the issue of our changing climate and take part in broader efforts to address the damage we do to the environment. This guide can help you learn more about critical climate issues.

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