Monday, July 16, 2018
Opinion

Column: Climate change, Zika and the threat to our children

No matter where you go in our state, the issue everyone is talking about — the fear on everyone's mind — is the spread of the Zika virus.

As a pediatrician who has provided care to infants and children for more than 35 years in Florida, I'm particularly concerned about pregnant women, those planning to become parents in the near future and the potential neurological harm that may come to their baby from a Zika virus infection.

Vector-borne diseases like Zika, dengue fever and West Nile virus are among the myriad of threats to public health in recent years. We understand that climate change is not always a direct factor in these outbreaks, as the relationship among weather, mosquito habitat and disease risk is complex. But what is pretty clear is that if the Zika virus becomes endemic in mosquitoes in the United States, climate-driven factors will likely be responsible.

Children will inherit the planet we leave them, and it's important to understand that children are uniquely vulnerable to the health impacts caused by climate change. So what value do we put on the health of our children and the generations that follow us? That really should not be such a tough question to answer, but many of our political leaders deny that climate change is even happening.

And yet the scientific and medical communities have data-driven, peer-reviewed evidence that climate warming-related diseases are worsening, as we are seeing now with the Zika virus. Sadly, many in Congress don't have the moral compass to pass health protective legislation to fund the eradication of this threat to our communities. They just packed up and left Washington, D.C., without a thought to the Zika virus-exposed mother whose baby may be born with life-altering microcephaly and developmental challenges that will last a lifetime for that baby and family — not to mention the socioeconomic costs to the community to support a child with developmental disabilities.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine states that much remains unknown about the effects of Zika virus infection during pregnancy, but it is prudent to take precautions to avoid Zika during pregnancy and for health care systems to prepare for an increased burden of adverse pregnancy outcomes in the coming years.

The World Health Organization declared in February the suspected link between Zika virus and microcephaly to be a "public health emergency of international concern." According to the Lancet medical journal, other neurologic conditions, like Guillain-Barre syndrome (flaccid paralyses), have also seen a sharp increase likely linked to an increase in Zika virus infections in South America. Babies born with such birth defects as microcephaly, and their families, experience a lifetime of neurologic and developmental challenges, which demands the attention of our local, state and national political leaders.

Mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, West Nile virus, malaria and dengue fever are among the myriad of climate change health threats which were once only lectured about in medical school classes and rarely seen in clinical practice but are now harbingers of a dangerously warming world.

Scientists have long predicted that in a warmer world, disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and ticks will be able to infect people outside of their traditional breeding grounds. We not only see mosquitoes escaping out of the tropics and into regions of North America, but we also see them being able to survive at higher altitudes, affecting mountaintop communities that were once too cold for the insects. In recent years, we have seen multiple cases of dengue fever — once a rare virus — reported in Miami and South Florida.

Of all the systems in nature, insects are the most sensitive to temperature change. A 2005 study by Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School outlines how mosquitoes respond to warmer climates. Greg Mercer of the Atlantic summarized the study nicely when he said that as our climate changes, mosquitoes bite more, breed more and spread more disease.

Our politicians have been warned for over a decade that tropical diseases could spread outside of their traditional range due to climate change. And yet many have kept their head in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the science of climate change and to protect the people they've pledged to serve. The current outbreak of the Zika virus has not been directly linked by evidence to global warming, but it is consistent with what scientists have predicted. Now that Zika is in our backyard, the threat is real and must be addressed.

It's time for our elected officials to pass health protective legislation to fund a prompt and strong response to Zika, including a monitoring system of infected pregnant women, research into treatment and a vaccine, and policies to slow the rate of climate change.

We can and must do more to protect public health. We must come together to foster a shared responsibility and cooperation in addressing these profound threats to health and our future.

Dr. Lynn Ringenberg is the Florida president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of South Florida and a retired Army colonel.

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