As Arctic ice melts, disease spreads

People living on permafrost disposed of anthrax-killed cattle for centuries by burial. Now anthrax is reemerging as burial sites thaw. Freezing doesn't kill anthrax spores.

While tropical diseases march north in the northern hemisphere, temperate diseases have already leaped into the Acrtic. TB in Arctic seals, West Nile virus in wolf pups in the Canadian Arctic - welcome to Eaarth where diseases flourish.

With rising temperatures comes strong evidence that the Arctic is seeing a spike in the rate of various diseases.

'We should recognize disease as a harbinger of a warming world.'

... as the climate warms in Arctic regions, more and more diseases from Europe and elsewhere are spreading there, threatening both animal and human populations.

"In the past diseases might not have survived in the cold temperatures and the ice of the Arctic but as the region warms a new dynamic is introduced," Heffernan told Climate News Network.

"We need to fundamentally alter the way we look at disease in the context of climate change. We should recognize disease as a harbinger of a warming world."

... a wide variety of diseases have recently become evident among Arctic animal populations.

Toxoplasma, a parasite common in European cat populations, is now being found in polar bears in Greenland. Erysipelas, a disease of domestic pigs, is being found in musk oxen in the Canadian Arctic: The animals have also been found to have contracted Giardiasis, an intestinal parasite of humans. Meanwhile West Nile virus has been found in wolf pups in the Canadian Arctic.

Early in the last century there were periodic outbreaks of anthrax in the Russian Arctic, resulting in the deaths of thousands of deer and cattle. Some Russian scientists and officials have warned that burial sites of those anthrax infected animals are now being exposed.

"As the Arctic melts, ancient pathogens can suddenly escape," Heffernan said. "No one knows for certain how many livestock burial sites there are in the Russian Arctic – I've seen estimates ranging from 400 to 13,000."

In recent years there have been several anthrax outbreaks affecting both cattle and people reported in the region, particularly among communities of the indigenous Yakut communities, who often live near to such burial sites.

We need to fundamentally alter the way we look at disease in the context of climate change.

- Claire Heffernan,
University of Reading

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West Nile virus has already spread as far North as Alaska.




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