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Climate Change and the Risk of Spreading Diseases

August 22, 2023

Climate Change and the Risk of Spreading Diseases

Ask students: What is an example of evidence from the story pointing to zoonotic diseases as a leading cause of pandemics? Where are scientists researching zoonotic diseases?

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Summary

The climate crisis is already affecting our environment, and researchers say it could lead to more zoonotic diseases, which are spread from pathogens that spill over from one species to another. Zoonotic diseases have been the primary cause of pandemics throughout human history.

Fifty miles northwest of Reno, scientists from the University of California, Davis have been systematically trapping deer mice to understand hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. Destructive wildfires, like the Dixie Fire, are causing deer mice to transmit hantavirus at higher rates. For a transcript of the video, click here

Scientists are coming up with new ways to monitor wildlife and analyze climate data to better understand spillover risks. 

Remote video URL

Key Terms:

  •  Zoonotic diseases (noun) – diseases that are spread from pathogens that spill over from one species to another
  •  Pathogen (noun) – a bacterium, virus or other microorganism that can cause disease
  •  Virologist (noun) – one who studies viruses and the diseases caused by them
  •  Epidemiologist (noun) – one who studies patterns and causes of disease and injury
  •  Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (noun) – a rare infectious disease that begins with flu-like symptoms; the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states hantavirus has a 38% mortality rate
  • Pandemic (noun) – a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease at a particular time
  • Transmit (verb) – to pass on to another
  • Echolocation (noun) – the location of objects by reflected sound
A simplified version of the pathogenic disease chart, sourced from The Conversation, shows how different climate disasters interact with transmission pathways and pathogens. The full version is available at https://camilo-mora.github.io/Diseases/ Camilo Mora, CC BY-ND
A simplified version of the pathogenic disease chart, sourced from The Conversation, shows how different climate disasters interact with transmission pathways and pathogens. The full version is available at https://camilo-mora.github.io/Diseases/ Camilo Mora, CC BY-ND

Five Facts

  • What is an example of evidence from the story pointing to zoonotic diseases as a leading cause of pandemics?
  • Throughout the story, where are scientists researching zoonotic diseases?
  • Who is someone likely to be directly affected by the climate crisis in this story?
  • Why are deer mice spreading hantavirus at higher rates?
  • How are some scientists choosing to safely study wildlife?

Focus Questions

  • What tools are scientists using to help take the surprise out of spillover events?
  • What is the significance of this story in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

News analysis: PBS science correspondent Miles O’Brien finishes the story by saying “greater investment to protect public health with some 21st century tools, along with the risky laborious fieldwork, might be the only way to stop a spillover from boiling over, shutting down the world once again.” Does this sentence help capture the urgency of the story?

For More

What students can do: Visit the Library of Congress archives and read The Remarkable Weather of 1911 from the Fergus County Democrat and answer the questions. 

  1. What details does the author share about the weather in 1911?
  2. What areas experienced unusual weather in 1911, according to the article?
  3. What does the article say about the use of coal and impact on the weather?

Source: “The Remarkable Weather of 1911” Fergus County Democrat, Lewistown, Montana. February 27, 1912. Library of Congress

Contributed by Cale Holmes, a journalist and educator, who focuses on the climate crisis, social justice and global issues. Holmes is a graduate of Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Columbia Journalism School. Republished with permission from PBS NewsHour Classroom.

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