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Tropical Virus Strains Heading For Warmer Europe

by Alan Harten
February 10, 2009

Changes in the Earth’s climate are making scientists worried about an increase in arboviruses, which are viruses borne by arthropods such as ticks and mosquitoes.

They are concerned not only because of the attraction of these insects to increasingly wet and warm areas, but because new types of viral behaviour are emerging.

These worries are expressed in a paper written by Professor Ernest A Gould of Oxford University, and Professor Stephen Higgs of University of Texas Medical Branch, in the February edition of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

The two professors have looked at the effect of climate change on viruses that have been in the news during the last 10 years: West Nile, Chikungunya, Rift Valley Fever and Bluetongue.

They have concluded that during the past five decades there have been important changes in the way arbovirus diseases appear.

The Bluetongue virus is borne by midges but the other three by mosquitoes.

Since their movements and breeding are greater in warm, damp areas, then climate change could lead to their migration to more places.

However Professor Higgs believes climate change is not the only reason for the increase.

The Bluetongue virus may be the only one to increase because of changes in the weather patterns.

For the last 10 years, approximately, the virus was only found in Africa, killing cattle as well as sheep and goats.

The Culex Imicola midge, which does not like cold temperatures, has spread north to a warmer Europe, and the Bluetongue virus can now be found in 12 countries of Europe.

The issues, other than changes in climate, which affect the prevalence of the virus are changes in the insects’ genetic structure, humans who have not been immunised and, in the case of the Chikungya virus, the easy movements of infected people.

In addition, regular heavy rains and more irrigation have an effect.

The export of live animals from Africa to Saudi Arabia may be the reason the Rift valley Fever virus has spread.

Air transport, similar types of mosquitoes and migrating birds spread the West Nile virus.

Professor Higgs believes that the movement of infected livestock and midges carried for many miles are important causes, but that climate change is the likely reason for the spread of the Bluetongue-carrying Culex imicola mosquitoe to the north.

He warns that infection further away can occur if global warming continues as some scientists argue it will, and that readiness for this spread is needed.

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