With Climate Change, Animal-to-Human Disease Transfer May Worsen

May 15, 2019

Certain environments may make it easier for animals to infect humans with diseases like bird flu and Ebola, according to a recent study from The University of Queensland and Swansea University.

In past studies, researchers have identified the spread of diseases by analyzing species impacted by animal-produced pathogens and their patterns of movement, a press release from the University of Queensland explains. This more recent study builds on that research, confirming that environmental conditions have an impact on whether or not pathogens are given the opportunity to interact with and infect humans.

While the Queensland/Swansea study has not provided concrete data on how specific environments affect diseases, scientists confirmed that environmental factors are among the most important in mapping and modeling the spread of zoonotic, or animal-to-human, illness.

Previous studies have given scientists an idea of the factors that contribute to animal-to-human disease transfer. A 2011 study conducted at Stellenbosch University in South Africa found that variables such as land temperature, sea level and acidity, rainfall patterns and soil conditions are among contributing factors. This study also broke down the contributing human factors, including tourism, trade, the agricultural industry and the popularity of domestic pets.

The Stellenbosch study states that approximately 60% of human pathogens originate in animals, and the spread and severity of these outbreaks can occur in unexpected ways. For example, as the climate changes and animals such as birds are forced to migrate to new locations, they may spread unfamiliar pathogens to native species as they travel.

Even human civil, political and military conflict can contribute to the spread of illness by harming health care infrastructure and weakening human ability to respond to illness when it arises, the Stellenbosch study claims.

The current unpredictability of the environment also makes anticipating how disease will spread more difficult. According to Swansea research team leader Konstans Wells, unpredictability caused by climate change makes it harder to establish a reliable model for making predictions.

In order to draw further conclusions about which environments most directly impact disease transfer, the research team hopes to conduct more studies in order to predict and prevent future outbreaks.

With Climate Change, Animal-to-Human Disease Transfer May Worsen