If you thought the climate crisis meant doom for every creature on the planet, then you may be wrong. Scientists are becoming increasingly confident that mosquitoes may be the winners of this battle.
Mosquitoes thrive in warmth and humidity. As climate change brings on heat waves and monsoons, leaving behind stagnant pools of water where mosquitoes breed, mosquitoes flourish.
For the first time in decades, the CDC warns the United States about the rise of vector-borne illnesses, particularly malaria as several cases have recently been found in Florida and Texas. It has raised concerns about mosquitoes inhabiting areas that they don’t normally, disrupting not only ecological environments, but creating a whole new problem when it comes to human health. Instead of dying during the cold winters, mosquitoes might actually have a chance of thriving year-round, allowing the parasites and viruses they carry to replicate with them.
While serious mosquito-borne illnesses, such as West Nile, chikungunya, malaria, dengue, and zika, still remain rare in the United States, they are much more common abroad, especially throughout Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.
Dengue, for example, causes fever, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and diarrhea and, in some cases, internal bleeding and death. There is no cure or specific treatment for dengue, leaving victims little choice except symptom management.
Peru is currently dealing with the worst outbreak of mosquito-borne dengue fever on record, which has infected around 150,000 people and killed more than 250. And now, dengue is knocking on the door of the US and Europe.
According to the CDC, there have been cases spread out between Texas, Florida, Hawaii, and Arizona. And, last week, the European CDC reported the presence of the Aedes albopictus species – which can transmit both dengue and chikungunya – in northwest Europe.
The expansion of mosquito territory isn’t happening slowly; in just a decade, the number of regions where the Aedes albopictus mosquito inhabits has increased three-fold. And, that number increases for towns already heavily affected by the climate crisis, which are not prepared for the impact that mosquito-borne diseases will inflict.
And, this becomes a health equity problem. Who will bear the burden of mosquito-borne illnesses?
We’ve already seen dengue cases disproportionally affect children in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Studies have estimated that 51% of children in the U.S. Virgin Islands and 44% of children and teens in southern Puerto Rico have had a previous infection (Harvard).
While the first-ever dengue vaccine became available last year, the companies that develop these vaccines are focused on making a profit by targeting their vaccines and therapeutics on US travelers, rather than those who are most affected by the disease. As seen with the distribution of the COVID vaccine, there’s a major global health inequity issue related to how vaccines are manufactured and distributed, as well as the cost of vaccines.
Additionally, mosquito-borne illnesses disproportionally affect those of low socioeconomic status. Whether it be the lack of netted screen windows in houses or living next to poor water infrastructure systems where mosquitoes breed, those who live in poverty bear the burden of mosquito-borne illnesses.
Climate change is an issue of global health justice. Mosquito-borne illnesses are on the rise due to the complex interactions between climate change and socioeconomic factors. Revamped, large-scale public and global health campaigns are necessary to truly address the rapid intensification of these issues.