As of today, authorities in Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador and Venezuela were urging women to avoid getting pregnant… It is unthinkable. Or rather, it is something out of a science fiction story, the absolute core of a dystopian future. — Bill McKibben in a recent statement on global warming and the now pandemic Zika virus.
There are a plethora of diseases out there. Diseases we don’t know about. Diseases locked away in far-off, rarefied corners of the world. Diseases that operate in small niche jungle environments. Diseases that live in only cave systems or within a single species. Diseases that were locked away millions of years ago in the now-thawing ice. Diseases that, if given a vector — or a means to travel outside of their little rarefied organic or environmental niches — can wreak untold harm across wide spans of the globe.
(Countries with reported active Zika transmission. Until recently, Zika flare-ups had been isolated to Central Africa and French Polynesia. Now the virus is a global pandemic with World Health Organizations authorities concerned infections could top 4 million. Image source: The CDC.)
Such was the case with the once humble Zika virus. Discovered in 1947 in Central Africa, the disease first only existed in monkeys. The virus took 7 years to make the leap into humans in 1954. But, at first, symptoms were only mild and for most of the history of this disease it was considered to be a less harmful form of the Dengue Fever Virus — to which it is closely related. The virus, at first, appeared only to result in fever, headaches, rash and back pain — if any symptoms appeared at all. It would take much longer for the devastating and horrific after-effects of an, at first, seemingly harmless virus to begin to show up.
Until 2007, when the virus began to grow to its current pandemic levels, it was mostly isolated to Central Africa and a region of French Polynesia in the Pacific. Both areas are among the warmest and wettest in the world. Both featuring very large and persistent populations of the kinds of mosquitoes most suited for the transmission of this, now widely-feared, illness.
An Issue of The Expanding Range of Disease Vectors
In epidemiology parlance, a vector is a disease carrier. In the case of Zika, the primary carrier is the mosquito. In total, seven species of the Aedes variety of mosquitoes are known to carry Zika.
Under normal climate conditions, the ranges of these disease-bearing insects would tend to remain rather stable. But that’s not the case in the current world. Since 1880, the world has been warming and the extents of disease vector mosquitoes has been expanding. Under the current regime of 1 C temperature increase over the past 136 years, Aedes aegypti — one of the chief transporters of the Zika virus — has expanded its range on out of the tropics and into increasingly higher Latitudes.
(Global Aedes aegypti distribution in 2015 — red indicates highest frequency, blue indicates zero frequency. Aedes aegypti is a disease vector for viruses like Dengue and Zika. As the globe has warmed, their range has been expanding into ever higher Latitudes. Image source: Aedes aegypti Distribution.)
But not only is the global extent of these disease carriers expanding — so is their persistence in the regions into which they’d previously occupied. Regions that may have seen only one or two weeks out of the year in which female, Zika infected, mosquitoes were active may now experience a month or two of exposure. And regions in which the mosquito was active for only a few months may now see active, disease-bearing populations for half of the year or more.
It is this increasing duration and expansiveness of disease vector exposure that is one of the most dangerous epidemiological impacts of climate change. Not only does climate change enable the movement of diseases out of previous isolation in remote reservoirs. It also enables an ever-broadening range of transport as the areas in which disease-carrying species are adapted to live dramatically expands both in terms of space and in terms of time of exposure.
It’s as if we decided to load up trillions of mosquitoes with what amounts to biological live rounds and then gave them the ability to unload that deadly ammunition over broader and broader expanses of the globe. That’s basically what you get when you warm the world. An expansion and global invasion of hitherto unknown illnesses spread throughout the world by vectors like the mosquito.
Zika’s Viral Explosion Occurs During Hottest Year on Record
Returning to our tale of the Zika virus’s expansion during 2007 through 2016, we find that Zika during this time-frame had leapt out of its traditional 20th Century range and expanded coincident with the spread of Aedes variety mosquitoes along the warming and moistening climate bands. In 2007, the first leap outside of Central Africa and French Polynesia occurred in Yap — a part of the Federated States of Micronesia.
The epidemic range then again expanded through 2014 into Easter Island, broader Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and New Caledonia. The geographic expansion of this illness along the Pacific Island chains indicates that Zika’s increased virulence likely sparked from the French Polynesian strain and not from the strain in Africa.
Then, in 2015, coordinate with the hottest global temperatures on record, Zika leapt out of its Pacific Island basin environmental confines and spread into Brazil and the Caribbean. The virus subsequently spread through a broad section of Central and South America. As of yesterday, travel warnings of possible exposure to the Zika virus included this list of 22 countries:
Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Samoa, Suriname, and Venezuela.
The New Climate Dystopia — We are Now Telling Women Not to Have Children
Like many viral fevers, Zika attacks the nervous systems of those it infects. And though initial onset symptoms may seem mild, with up to 80 percent of those infected showing no symptoms at all, the virus may cause severe longer-term damage to both the unborn and to vulnerable individuals. For as infection rates for the virus increased what were suspected to be related instances of a kind of temporary paralysis called Guillian Barre Syndrome and a terrifying shrinking of the heads of unborn infants called microcephaly also spiked.
(A spike in microcephaly rates — a tragic shrinking of the heads of unborn children as a result of viral damage to the nervous system — among infants in regions of Zika virus outbreak has raised global concerns about the virus’s ongoing impact. Most particularly, women in an expanding number of countries are now being asked to refrain from having children for months or even years. Image source: The CDC.)
The virus, which has no symptoms 80% of the time, is blamed for causing stunted brain development in babies. About 3,500 cases of microcephaly have been identified in Brazil so far. And medical staff in Recife, a state capital in north-east Brazil, say they are struggling to cope with at least 240 cases of microcephaly in children.The city’s Health Secretary, Jailson Correia, a specialist in tropical diseases, told the BBC he and others needed “to fight very hard”.
These are profoundly terrible impacts. Ones that were not initially expected from a virus that at first seemed so innocuous. And it’s this threat of Zika-spawned microcephaly among infants that is spurring everything from travel warnings to the hitherto unprecedented measure of some countries requesting that their human populations take the extreme step of avoiding pregnancy.
As of Monday authorities in Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador and Venezuela were urging women not to get pregnant. The pregnancy moratorium — which is voluntary — ranges in duration from a few months to two years in the case of El Salvador. And the reason for the requested moratorium is sadly practical. Authorities in these countries are now forced to choose between asking women to avoid pregnancy or having their healthcare systems overwhelmed by infants suffering from microcephaly.
With a vaccine likely 10-12 years away for Zika, with 4 million cases expected in the current outbreak, and with the range of Aedes type mosquitoes who carry the virus continuing to expand on the back of a human-forced warming of the globe, we are sadly just at the beginning of this particular tragedy. An event that, as Bill McKibben noted in The Guardian earlier this week, has leapt fully into the realm of dystopia.
A Profound Dislocation For Humankind
Microcephaly among infants is both tragic and terrifying. Its impact strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a human being. If a virus, driven to far-flung regions by the heating of the world through fossil fuel burning, is able to cripple our children while still in the womb, our sense of security is shattered as we witness heart-breaking brutality. It’s the kind of thing so terrible it couldn’t come from the human imagination. Which is why, when we witness it, we experience a strange sense of dislocation. A surreal sense that all is not right. Like the moment after the car hit the telephone pole, the moment you’re still flying through the air flung free of the vehicle. The moment just before the inevitable impact with the pavement.
But the impact, sadly, does come. Not only are we turning many of the species of this world into climate orphans. Into creatures without a safe space in which to live and thrive, we are also doing it to ourselves. For the children of Zika are climate orphans too. The tragic victims of an expanding range of environmental conditions that are hazardous to human life. And Zika is but one example of the deadly diseases, extreme weather, sea level rise, glacial collapse, ocean death, and crop disruption we are now forcing upon the human habitat. A habitat we are rendering less livable for ourselves and pretty much everything else.
That’s what terminal dislocation means — to be forceably ejected. To be suddenly introduced into a very hostile environment in which survival, and in this case reproduction, is suddenly a crap shoot. For human beings, this is a profound dislocation. One that makes the world we’re living in now seem all-too-alien. For we’re not living in the world we are used to. And the one we’re making is both terrible and tragic. And, in all honesty, we desperately need to stop the damage before some other very big, or terrible, or essential thing breaks free.
Hat tip to Umbrios
Hat tip to Colorado Bob
Hat tip to DT Lange
Hat tip to RedSky