With climate change, some diseases are on the rise. Is U.S. ready?

Is the U.S. Ready for the Increase in Vector-borne Diseases with Climate Change?

Climate change is bringing about significant changes in the environment, which in turn has serious implications on human health. One of the major impacts of climate change is the rise of vector-borne diseases. With changes in the ranges of many disease-carrying species, there has been a sharp increase in infections, making it difficult for public officials, hospitals, and doctors to be adequately prepared for potential outbreaks. In this article, we will look at the state of vector-borne diseases in the United States and whether the country is prepared for a surge in infections.

Vector-borne Diseases on the Rise

Vector-borne diseases are those that are transmitted to humans by vectors such as fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. Some of the most common vector-borne diseases include West Nile, Zika, dengue fever, Lyme disease, and others. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the public health response to these diseases was muted, perhaps because the number of reported cases was relatively low, and the public was largely unaware of the health risks posed by such diseases. However, with climate change accelerating, the ranges of many disease-carrying species have shifted, resulting in a significant increase in infections.

Underprepared for a Potentially Devastating Surge in Infections

Scientists and others warn that the nation’s public officials, as well as hospitals and doctors, are underprepared for a potentially devastating surge in infections. Research on vector-borne diseases and disease surveillance, they note, are underfunded by federal and local governments, leaving the country vulnerable to outbreaks. Without sustained funding in local vector control and surveillance, it becomes difficult to look for threats before they become huge causes for concern for local public health.

“Without sustained funding in local vector control and surveillance, it ends up stymieing that response of looking for the threats before they become really huge causes for concern for local public health,” said Chelsea Gridley-Smith, director of environmental health for the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).

Underreporting of Vector-borne Diseases

In the United States, cases of 17 different vector-borne diseases have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and nine pathogens new to the country have been identified since 2004. Reported cases of vector-borne diseases more than doubled from 2004-2019, to more than 800,000 cases. However, those figures are almost certainly an undercount, CDC officials said in a presentation to Congress last year. Only 2% to 3% of West Nile cases and about 10% of Lyme disease cases are reported, said Lyle Petersen, the director of the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases in Fort Collins, Colo. Overall, cases of vector-borne diseases are probably underreported by 10-fold to 80-fold, according to Benjamin Beard, the CDC division’s deputy director.

Challenges in Addressing Vector-borne Diseases

Tick-borne diseases comprise the largest share of vector-borne diseases by far, with over 80% of reported cases caused by ticks. Longer summers, rising temperatures, and the expanding ranges of tick species such as Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged tick, and Amblyomma americanum, the lone star tick, are leading to an increased chance of human exposure to pathogens over a larger geographic area. The range of Ixodes scapularis, a tick that transmits Lyme and other diseases, expanded greatly over two decades, with the number of counties with established populations more than doubling from 1996 to 2015.

Addressing vector-borne diseases involves formidable challenges, from the need for better diagnostic tools and treatments to the development of effective vaccines. In addition, public officials must educate the public on ways to prevent infection, such as using insect repellent and wearing protective clothing when outdoors. More research is needed to better understand the transmission dynamics of vector-borne diseases, and to develop new strategies for control and prevention. With climate change expected to continue driving the emergence and spread of vector-borne diseases, it is imperative that governments at all levels take action to protect public health. This includes investing in research, surveillance, and control measures, as well as working with international partners to address the global challenge of vector-borne diseases.