Climate Change Likely To Increase Spread Of The Flu

The U.S. is going through the worst outbreak of West Nile virus in history, a problem likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Today, new research from the University of Michigan suggests that climate change is also likely to spread the flu:

[C]limate change could upset the carefully choreographed interactions between ruddy turnstone shorebirds and the horseshoe crabs that provide the bulk of their food during the birds’ annual stopover.

Climate change caused disruptions to the well-timed interplay between the birds and crabs could lead to an increase in the avian flu infection rate among ruddy turnstones and resident ducks, a Michigan University statement said.

Researchers say because Delaware Bay is a crossroads for many bird species traveling between continents, an increase in the avian infection rate there could conceivably help spread novel subtypes of the influenza virus among North American wild bird populations.


“We’re not suggesting that our findings necessarily indicate an increased risk to human health,” said Rohani, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, a professor of complex systems and a professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health.

“But every single pandemic influenza virus that has been studied has included gene segments from avian influenza viruses. So from that perspective, understanding avian influenza transmission in its natural reservoir is, in itself, very important,” Rohani said.

The common flu may sound harmless (though it still kills thousands of Americans per year), flu pandemics are deadly serious. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic killed between between 151,700 and 575,400 people, according to an estimate from Lancet. While this research is new, a longstanding and robust body of work suggests that global warming is likely to increase the incidence of a variety of illnesses.