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N.Y. disease outbreak called a global warning


The Culex pipiens species of mosquito is the one responsible for spreading encephalitis in New York City.
The Culex pipiens species of mosquito is the one responsible for spreading encephalitis in New York City  
Encephalitis outbreak spreads outside New York City

As New York health officials struggle to curb the spread of encephalitis among the city's residents, Physicians for Social Responsibility warns that outbreaks of this and other mosquito-borne diseases will be on the rise if global warming remains on its current path.

Infectious diseases such as encephalitis, malaria and yellow fever will become prevalent in regions beyond just the tropics, according to the group, as greenhouse gases continue to increase in the atmosphere and the Earth warms.

Three elderly people have died in New York City from the St. Louis strain of encephalitis in the last week. The St. Louis strain causes inflammation of the brain that is almost always induced by a virus carried by mosquitoes. Normally, encephalitis is not deadly and can be treated, but it can be fatal to those with a weakened immune system.

The issue according to Dr. Cathey Falvo, program director for International and Public Health at New York Medical College who is also a member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility board, is whether the disease-causing microbes that are carried by mosquitoes will be able to survive through the winter.

The Culex mosquitoes that spread diseases like malaria and encephalitis are prevalent in many areas but do not always carry disease. For an outbreak to occur in the United States, the microbes that cause illness must be carried in from elsewhere around the world, and conditions must be right for the microbes to remain alive and for the mosquitoes that spread them to flourish.

These microbes die when they are exposed to colder temperatures. This is why in New York City officials have pledged to spray pesticides for the next several weeks or until the first frost, since the cold weather would kill the microbes and preclude the need to continue spraying.

If global warming continues on its present course, said Falvo, milder winters will result that will not be cold enough to kill the microbes. The organisms will still be present in the mosquito population when the bugs become active again in spring, and unprecedented disease outbreaks could occur.

Mild winters without temperatures below freezing will allow disease-causing microbes carried by mosquitoes to survive.
Mild winters without temperatures below freezing will allow disease-causing microbes carried by mosquitoes to survive  
To combat global warming, Falvo believes individuals must be more aware of the need to conserve energy. Ask yourself if it is necessary to drive a huge car that gets five miles to the gallon to pick the kids up from school, she said.

Personal water use is another area to focus on, she said. It can take so much energy to provide water when the purification process as well the electricity necessary to get it to your tap is taken into account. People also need to reduce they amount of rubbish they generate since much of it is burned, Falvo said.

On a broader level, Falvo believes that the agreements made in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto regarding global warming need to be implemented as soon as possible. She also advocates government incentives to conserve energy, the promotion of alternative energies such as wind and solar and discretion when it comes to exporting energy technology. For instance, western nations should first suggest renewable solar or wind technologies to developing countries, rather than offering hydroelectric or nuclear energy technology at the outset.

Falvo is hopeful about new studies being conducted to harness the power of ocean currents to generate electricity, though this research is in its infancy.

Considering the New York City encephalitis problem, Falvo suggests that the infrastructure responding to outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases ought to improve.

For example, the Culex mosquito responsible for the spread of encephalitis prefers long, hot and dry spells before it breeds. It would be helpful, she said, if there were someone at the health department knowledgeable about insects and their lifecycles who could predict that there might be an outbreak. These weather conditions conducive to the breeding of the Culex existed on the East Coast for most of the summer.

Some of the steps that could have been taken include warning citizens about the possibility of an outbreak, encouraging them to wear insect repellant and suggesting the use of window screens if people choose not to run their air conditioning or don't have it.

With such cautionary tactics, the controversial spraying of the pesticide Malathion could have been avoided, at least to some extent. While she is concerned about the use of pesticides, Falvo does admit that there is not always a better choice, and that the use of pesticides in New York City probably could not have been avoided under the circumstances.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

Global warming unpredictable, scientists say
September 20, 1999
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Physicians for Social Responsibilty
Communicable Disease: New York City Department of Public Health
EPA - Global Warming Site
Centers for Disease Control Health Topics A-Z
The World Health Organization
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