What’s in a name? Epidemiologists are describing COVID-19 as a pandemic. But the World Health Organization isn’t going that far just yet, describing the spread as merely an “epidemic.”
The coronavirus disease “has pandemic potential,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization said on Feb. 26. “Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems.”
But by Friday the international health organization raised its risk assessment for COVID-19 to “very high” based on the “spread” of virus and “countries’ capacity to respond.”
Not that people are paying attention to the actual label. Around the world stores are reporting a run on basic supplies such as water and disinfectant wipes. It’s the same in Italy, Hong Kong and other places where the virus has been reported.
Even though Alaska has yet to report a case, stores are reporting shortages of water and other supplies.
Dr. Michael Mina says it may not be dubbed a pandemic, “but I think most epidemiologists around the world, including myself and my colleagues, definitely consider this at this point to be sort of the definition of a pandemic.” Mina is an assistant professor of epidemiology and an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health of Harvard University,
“And that's because it's spreading now locally in many countries not just China anymore,” said Mina, who is the associate medical director leading some of the molecular biology diagnostics focused on diagnosing and dealing with COVID-19.
The Journal of American Medical Association defines a pandemic as “a health condition that has spread globally” and epidemic as “an outbreak that has spread to a larger geographic area.”
By Sunday the World Health Organization reported 87,137 cases worldwide. China identified 79,968 cases of COVID-19 resulting in 2,873 deaths. Outside China there are 7,169 cases in 58 countries and 104 deaths.
At the beginning of the year, the organization released 13 “urgent, global health challenges” for the next decade. Part of the 13 included preparing for epidemics, stopping infectious diseases, and elevating health in the climate debate. All three of which continue to be overlooked.
In that same announcement, Dr. Ghebreyesus said, “Countries invest heavily in protecting their people from terrorist attacks, but not against the attack of a virus, which could be far more deadly, and far more damaging economically and socially. A pandemic could bring economies and nations to their knees.”
Yet beyond the words, epidemic or pandemic, warnings about a fast-spreading virus has been a part of the literature on climate change.
Scientists say the world isn’t prepared to deal with a global pandemic. The 1918 influenza pandemic has been used as an example. Back then, the world didn’t have the medical technology it has now. But even medical innovation isn’t enough today. The world has the ability to travel from continent to continent quickly. Now COVID-19 exists on six of the seven continents in the world.
(Previous story: A lethal epidemic that 'decimated' and 'annihilated' Indigenous people)
Due to the “combined impacts of rapid demographic, environmental, social, technological and other changes in our ways-of-living,” there is an “apparent increase” in infectious diseases and new ones, said the World Health Organization. “Climate change will also affect infectious disease occurrence.”
As one 2016 study found: “Climate change can affect human health, especially when infectious diseases are concerned.”
The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board in a report last year outlined what governments should be doing to prepare for global health emergencies. The board found that between 2011 and 2018, the World Health Organization fought 1,483 epidemic events in 172 countries.
Dean Seneca, who worked for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention for nearly 19 years as a health scientist in the Office for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support and was also a first responder to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, said rapid changes in the environment “have a huge impact on disease outbreaks.”
“You know the environment, if you wanna if we really want to get into it, had a huge, you can look this up, had a huge impact on the hantavirus,” said the Seneca tribal citizen. The hantavirus was first spotted on the Navajo Nation and spread throughout the Four Corners Region in 1993.
After years of drought, rain and snow came heavily in the early months of 1993. Navajo elders told CDC scientists, who were trying to figure out the source of the hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, that the precipitation reinvigorated the plants, especially piñon pine nuts. There was enough food for the deer mice to populate. The CDC said there were 10 times more mice in May 1993 than in May 1992. With more deer mice around, the hantavirus could be carried and transmitted to humans. The winds in the Four Corners also played a role, Seneca said.
One study by B. Hjelle and G.E. Glass found that the two instances of hantavirus cardiopulmonary syndrome breaking out in the Four Corners Region in 1993-1994 and 1998-1999 was a result of El Niño.
Finding the source of the hantavirus just shows how Indigenous people know the environment and their communities, Seneca said.
A study released in 2015 examined the weather-infectious disease relationship of studies between 1990 and 2015. It found a dramatic change in the environment “can potentially change the dynamics of human infectious diseases by impacting pathogens, vectors/hosts, or transmission routes.”
Similar weather patterns in the Four Corners happened in West Africa when the 2014-2016 Ebola Virus Disease broke out. It was dry and heavy rainfall hit, which led to fruit growth. Animals like bats and apes gathered to eat the fruit. Scientists suspect fruit bats were the cause.
“With climate change expected to put increasing pressure on food security in Africa, food shortages will push more people to alternative food sources and consumption of bushmeat, like bats, will likely increase,” said scientist Kris Murray at EcoAlliance in an interview with the Earth Institute. Bushmeat derives from wild animals like bats, monkeys, cane rats and antelope. Monkeys and rats are common. Another study stated that in rural villages in Africa, the droughts, economic hardship, unemployment and soil has locals turning to wildlife hunting and trading bushmeat.
Due to human activities like deforestation, animals’ habitats are being destroyed and the only place left for them to go is near humans. (Case in point: the recent fires in the Amazon rainforest for farmers.) This increases the likelihood of humans interacting with animals and animals can pass germs (like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites) to humans. This is called a zoonotic disease and makes people ill, according to the CDC.
The increase in urbanization of people has also led to a greater risk of disease transmission. People want to move from the rural areas to the cities for jobs and in some areas, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers find homes in overcrowded and unsanitary areas, according to the World Health Organization.
“A really important message that we advocate is that protecting the environment will help protect ourselves from a range of natural disasters, including disease,” Murray said.
Other extreme weather patterns, like floods, can lead to malnutrition, crop failure, starvation, an increase in people being displaced, and fighting over resources, says the 2015 study.
Floods also “provide breeding grounds for insects and cause water contamination, leading to the spread of diarrheal diseases like cholera,” wrote Renee Cho at Earth Institute. It also can lead to a shortage of clean water.
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Another question scientists ask is if pathogens, or infectious diseases, can survive the temperatures of a warming planet?
The 2015 study states this is “challenging” because different and dramatic climate shifts in humidity, dry air, wind, floods, temperature, and precipitation. All of this, including time. “Climate change will continue to affect the health risk for human infectious diseases, limiting some disease transmission but creating opportunities for others.”
Perhaps what is even more alarming is our immune system’s could be “less effective” as the global temperature rises, according to Time magazine.
When pathogens are introduced to our bodies, we battle with a fever. However, as the planet warms, those same pathogens “that survive—and reproduce—are better adapted to higher temperatures, including those in our bodies. And, with that, one of our body’s primary defense mechanisms diminishes in effectiveness,” wrote Justin Worland after speaking with a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Worland said that the body temperature of bats is slightly higher than humans, 6.4 degrees higher. They’re protected just like we are with our body temperature. They carry tons of pathogens “without suffering from them” and can still carry those pathogens that can hurt humans.
It can also harm Indigenous communities, the very communities who are close to nature.
Indigenous communities are the “most vulnerable and will likely be disproportionately affected by increased disease proliferation,” wrote Jennifer Zhang, a member of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, and editor for Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development.
The biggest suggestion coming from the 2015 study: adaption.
Adapting includes improving public health programs, providing financial and health care resources, staying updated on scientific projections of infectious diseases, public awareness, understanding the weather changes, promoting a healthy lifestyle, and having early warning systems.
The threats don't stop there. There are also melting glaciers to worry about because “this will release glacial microbes and viruses that have been trapped and preserved for tens to hundreds of thousands of years.” Researchers discovered hidden viruses, 28 are new viral groups, inside a Tibetan plateau from 15,000 years ago when the water froze.
“Glacier ice harbors diverse microbes, yet the associated viruses and their impacts on ice microbiomes have been unexplored,” wrote the authors.
They say the “in a worst-case scenario, this ice melt could release pathogens into the environment.”
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