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Are We Prepared for Vector-Borne Diseases?

March 21, 2022
As the climate continues to change, we’ll likely begin to see invertebrate vectors adapting to potentially more favorable weather conditions.

What do insects like mosquitos, fleas, lice, and ticks have in common? They’re all classified as vectors by the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO defines vectors as “living organisms that can transmit infectious pathogens between humans, or from animals to humans.”

On a global scale, WHO reports that every year, there are more than 700,000 deaths from vector-borne diseases such as the West Nile virus, malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and more.

While these diseases may not be currently prevalent in the United States as they are in other parts of the world, when subjected to the impacts of climate change, there is potential for more dynamic and even migrating vector populations.

Climate Change and Its Impacts

As the climate continues to change, we’ll likely begin to see invertebrate vectors adapting to potentially more favorable weather conditions.

Take the impact of flooding coupled with increasing temperatures for example. Chances are we will begin to see rising sea levels, backed up brackish (slightly salty) water and freshwater levels, and generally higher water levels in inland areas. This will lead to areas with saturated and increased moisture levels, the rise of vectors, and possibly the increasing spread of vector-borne diseases.

For example, the more mosquitoes that inhabit an area, there is a greater potential for mosquito-borne outbreaks such as West Nile, dengue, and malaria. Additionally, as human populations increase in high-density, urban areas, the chance of vector-borne diseases also increases.

Warmer temperatures also create the perfect environment for these insects to multiply faster. In turn, it may be easier for vectors to maintain high populations, bolstered by shorter lifecycles, and increase the number of generations per year.

Even if temperatures rise by half to one degree over the next decade or so, it will still be in favor of rising vector populations.

According to the Human Impact Report: Climate Change — The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis published by the Global Humanitarian Forum, currently “over half a billion people are at extreme risk to the impacts of climate change, and six in 10 people are vulnerable to climate change in a physical and socioeconomic sense.”

The Human Impact Report also shares, “the number of those severely affected by climate change is more than ten times greater than for instance those injured in traffic accidents each year, and more than the global annual number of new malaria cases.”

What’s to Come

Looking to the future, the Global Humanitarian Forum anticipates the number of affected individuals to double — if not more — within the next 20 years, noting “one in ten of the world’s present population could be directly and seriously affected” by vector-borne diseases.

In the green industries, it’s important to consider the impact of increasing vectors, disease incidence, the effect on green work spaces, and our physical and mental health. We must consider and understand that employees are subject to encounters with ticks for example, thus increasing the likelihood of becoming infected with Lyme disease (among other diseases and illnesses) by working outdoors daily. 

There is an imbalance when studying climate research. There isn’t an abundance of studies that showcase the parallels between climate change and the potential impact on our health caused by the spread of vector-borne diseases.

It’s fair to question whether these risks will take a toll on employees’ mental health or even lead to attrition within the workforce. That’s why our Research, Science, and Innovation team at ACRT Services is looking at the correlative imbalances between climate change and vector migration.

Acclimating to Change

As vectors continue to adapt to climate change, so must our workforce — especially those in the southern tier of the United States.

Think about warm, humid places like Florida. As the climate continues to mimic a tropical environment, we will likely see more vibrant vector populations and diseases that have been historically tropically-based may now begin to appear with increasing frequency, such as yellow fever, dengue, and malaria.

How to Protect Yourself While Outdoors

It’s impossible to reverse climate change overnight, but it is possible to better protect ourselves — especially while outdoors.

An infographic provided by ACRT outlines several ways to protect yourselves from pesky pests, including mosquitos, bees and wasps, ticks, chiggers, spiders, and other stinging insects.

Keep the following best management practice recommendations in mind to reduce your exposure to insect bites.

Apply both repellents and insecticides, or approved alternatives regularly, and by following the instructions found on the label. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using an EPA-registered insect repellent with one of the following ingredients: DEET, picaridin (known as KBR 3023 and icaridin outside the US), IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone.

Be sure to apply a pesticide, such as Permethrin, to your outerwear — including footwear and work gear. Clothing that is pre-treated with Permethrin is also available for purchase.

If you’re having trouble determining what to apply, consider using the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s search tool to help choose the repellent product that is right for you.

Wearing the appropriate type of clothing provides an additional barrier to prevent ticks (and other insects) from reaching the skin. Light-colored clothing makes spotting ticks easier but does not prevent them from getting on you. Tucking pants into socks along with tucking shirts into pants reduces the areas ticks can reach the skin.

Conducting frequent body checks throughout the day, followed by a full-body check at the end of each shift, will allow you to find any ticks that may have reached your skin before they can attach.

Despite the intimidation of climate change and the dangers that may accompany it, many of these vector-borne diseases are preventable through research, protective measures, and education.

Dr. Anand Persad is the director of research, science, and innovation at ACRT Services. Dr. Persad has an extensive background in arboriculture, invasive species, tree biomechanics, pollinator health, wetland restoration, avian studies, and more. He is the recipient of the 2021 International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) L.C. Chadwick Award for Arboricultural Research and the Award of Achievement by the Ohio Chapter of the ISA. Dr. Persad serves as the research committee chair for the Utility Arborist Association (UAA) and actively works with city, state, and federal organizations in taking innovation and technology from development to implementation. He holds a Ph.D. in invertebrate ecology/entomology from the University of the West Indies.

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