Role of climate change & interactions in spread of diseases like Zika

University of South Florida

Share this:

The Zika virus isn’t the only pathogen spreading in Florida; the Tampa Bay Times reports a bacterial disease called Texas Phoenix Palm Decline is infecting trees including date palms and the Tampa area is the center of its spread to other regions of the state. To look at how climate change and other factors like new interactions between species influence the spread of diseases, WMNF News interviewed Gordon Fox, professor of integrative biology at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Fox also suggests some things that could slow the spread of harmful organisms and diseases.

Listen to the full interview here:

“It’s certainly possible that some diseases, that weren’t present in temperate regions, are now going to be transmitted in those regions-that’s possible. It isn’t necessarily though, because of climate change, entirely. I mean, it can be certainly if it’s warmer or wetter or for that matter dryer, which is predicted in some places, that can help the transmission of diseases. But, most of those climate effects, so far, are fairly small I think. In other words, we have not yet seen enough warming to change the distributions of lots of organisms.”

But, it might be possible with additional warming, that might change slightly.

“Certainly that can change and it probably will change, for some organisms.”

But, you’re also speculating that it might have to do with–there might be more disease spread just because there’s more interactions and more new kinds of interactions.

“Well, yes. I think that’s actually easy to lose sight of. We move organisms around a lot. We have moved, well the date palms that were described in this article, are not native to this area, although my understanding of the native cabbage palms also are subject to this disease. But, we move around the date palms, we move around other palms, of course we move plants all over the place. We move people around the globe, we move animals around the globe and one of the results is that we relocate, quite unintentionally, a lot of disease-causing organisms, a lot of pathogens, and we also relocate their vectors, in many cases. For example, the insects that transmit the bacteria or virus or fungus that is actually pathogenic in a plant.”

What solutions would you have for this type of thing? I mean, people are going to travel, they’re going to bring organisms with them, are there things to kind of keep an eye on?

“Absolutely people are going to travel and I’m one of them and I’m not suggesting that we should stop.

“One thing, that I think is the case, is that some of the movement of organisms is unjustified on almost any rational grounds. As an example, and I don’t mean to single out just one industry, rather I’ll name a couple of them. The nursery industry largely depends on novelty for its profits, and so there’s a constant drive to find new plants to bring to new places, so that people can grow something different, in their yard for example. And that means that there’s constant importation of new plants.

“Same is true for much of, well I’ll call it broadly, the pet industry: tropical fish, certainly the trade in herps and birds and some other organisms involves massive importation of organisms from all over the world. And these don’t fill a real social need, what they do is they fill the need of the owners of the companies that are supplying the nurseries and the pet shops for making money.

“And, I think part of the answer to this problem is that I think there needs to be vastly more restriction on the importation of such organisms. They’re not feeding people or anything like that, they are simply being sold as novelties and I think that moving organisms around like that needs to be subjected to considerable scrutiny.”

In one infamous example of what you’re talking about, could be the lion fish that were probably released into the wild and now are causing havoc in the Gulf and in the Atlantic.

“Absolutely. That’s an extreme example of this and there are other examples as well. I should say that our ability to predict what organisms will do well in particular places, is not that good. There are a number of known cases of, well, there are some parrot populations living in Brooklyn and in Chicago, places where really nobody would predict parrots would succeed.

“There’s an infamous case of an algae from the Indian Ocean that’s managed to spread over much of the Mediterranean. These are things that people take a look and say ‘Oh, they’ll never make it, we don’t need to worry about it’ and they have made it.

“And so, I think caution is the wise course with organisms like this.”

  • FalconMoose

    Yep the climate is certainly changing…..like it has for millions of years. Volcanic eruptions spew more methane and co2 than humans have since the industrial revolution.
    https://www.google.com/

  • Christina Richards

    Excellent discussion of the problems Professor Fox! Thank you!