The hidden environmental factors behind the spread of Zika and other devastating diseases


The full article by Chris Mooney was originally written for the Washington Post

The alarming spread of the Zika virus — caused in major part by the infamous Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can also carry dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya virus — is looking more and more like a public health catastrophe. But it’s also, say experts, something else: The latest example of how human alterations to their environments, in the broadest sense, can empower disease-carrying organisms like Aedes and the viruses they bring with them.

That mosquito, in particular, thrives in “artificially human-made habitats,” says Durland Fish, a professor of microbial diseases and also forestry and environmental studies at Yale University. “Tires and cans and plastic containers and rain barrels, and things like that.”

“It doesn’t live in the ground, or in swamps, or any other kinds of places where you would normally find mosquitoes,” Fish continues. “So humans have created an environment for it to proliferate, by having all of these water containing containers around, and the mosquito has adapted so well…it’s really kind of a human parasite. It’s like the cockroach of the mosquito world.”

And unfortunately, what’s true of Aedes aegypti is true of many other disease vectors, and many other diseases — a major problem that Fish says the world still isn’t really grappling with.

That’s not to say that other factors — like poverty, globalization, and advanced transportation systems that can carry not only people but also diseases and their vectors — aren’t equally important. But researchers such as Fish suggest that environmental factors have been neglected and, with no vaccine available for Zika, are also a key part of the solution. So let’s examine some of the major ways that human-caused environmental changes have been shown to worsen the spread of diseases — before examining why more isn’t being done about this problem:

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The hidden environmental factors behind the spread of Zika and other devastating diseases