Climate change will fuel the rapid and unpredictable spread of deadly epidemics in Europe

Cholera, anthrax and Lyme disease are some of the most climate-sensitive diseases.

Sea surface temperatures today. Climate change is expected to alter the range of infectious and emerging diseases in Europe. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Climate change is expected to bring a large-scale and sometimes unpredictable change to the spread of infectious diseases in Europe, a new study finds.

The large-scale review has mapped how 100 human infectious diseases are likely to spread or change their range due to climate change in Europe. Nearly two-thirds of the pathogens studied were sensitive to climate.

The authors also studied 100 animal infectious diseases and found that a similar proportion were likely to be altered by climate change. Zoonotic diseases – those that jump from animals to humans, such as SARS, HIV and Ebola – were more sensitive to change than those that infect either only humans or only animals.

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Across the board, those most likely to be affected were diseases transmitted by ticks or insects, such as mosquitoes. Food, water and soil-borne diseases were the next most climate-sensitive.

"Although there is a well-established link between climate change and infectious disease, we did not previously understand how big the effects will be and which diseases will be most affected," said Marie McIntyre, who led the project at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Infection and Global Health

"Climate sensitivity of pathogens is a key indicator that diseases might respond to climate change, so assessing which pathogens are most climate-sensitive, and their characteristics, is vital information if we are to prepare for the future."

Some pathogens had many climate 'drivers', so that their response to a changing climate would be particularly large or unpredictable. The diseases with the most drivers were cholera, liver fluke, anthrax and Lyme disease.

"Currently, most models examining climate effects only consider a single or at most two climate drivers, so our results suggest that this should change if we really want to understand future impacts of climate change on health," McIntyre said.

Climate change already appears to be increasing the range of several diseases beyond their historic ranges. Zika in South America is one example of this, as are the livestock diseases bluetongue and Schmallenberg disease in Europe.

It's hoped that the findings could feed into policies to focus on surveillance of these diseases to anticipate climate-driven outbreaks. The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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