Thursday, 3 Apr 2003

BOSTON, Mass.

It’s a bit crazy here in the office due to preparations for our Friday night event. Like many environmental nonprofits, we have a small shop and all of us work on a range of tasks, so I can go from drafting remarks for our event to stuffing goodie bags with organic seeds and mini-planters.

I am hoping to attract some press to our event in an effort to raise awareness about the human-health connection to the environment. Many of the responses I am getting are from reporters not interested in organic food, but rather in the new mystery illness, SARS. Although people are asking about the environmental connections, it is too early to begin to piece together all the underlying causes of the disease.

Our center — and especially our associate director, Paul Epstein — works on a number of climate connections to infectious diseases such as malaria and West Nile Virus. The spread of West Nile, which killed over 100 people in the U.S. last year, may be caused by the changing climate’s effect on the mosquito that spreads the disease. Mosquitoes need warm weather to survive, and the rising temperatures can increase their range. The heat can also speed up their metabolisms, producing more generations of mosquitoes in a single season. The extreme weather events brought on by climate volatility can also increase the number of mosquitoes, since heavy rains after drought conditions can create standing water, prime breeding ground for mosquitoes.

It is so often the case that the media simplifies these stories, when in my opinion, the complexities are far more interesting. Here is a prime example: Right now, an Ebola epidemic has swept through the Congo, killing hundreds of gorillas and chimpanzees (our closest relatives) and over 100 people. The epidemic has spread through the handling of bushmeat, illegally hunted primates. This is also thought to be the way that HIV spread, since HIV originated from SIV, the chimpanzee form of the disease.

One of the factors that increases the bushmeat trade is deforestation and loss of habitat, which makes these animals vulnerable to poachers. So, it is not simply that we are losing these precious animals whose numbers are already dangerously low; it is that we are endangering our own lives when we tamper so destructively with their habitat.