El Niño responsible for disease outbreaks

The 2015-2016 El Niño triggered disease outbreaks around the world, according to a new NASA study. Knowledge of this relationship can help countries take preventive measures in the future to minimize the spread of disease.

El Niño is a climate pattern characterized by warmer than usual ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, explains a NASA press release. It is an irregularly occurring climate event, but its effects are felt in weather changes around the world.

According to a new NASA study, the 2015-2016 El Niño was not only particularly strong, it was also responsible for creating weather conditions that triggered regional disease outbreaks throughout the world.

“The strength of this El Niño was among the top three of the last 50 years, and so the impact on weather and therefore diseases in these regions was especially pronounced,” said lead author and NASA research scientist Assaf Anyamba. “By analyzing satellite data and modelling to track those climate anomalies, along with public health records, we were able to quantify that relationship”.

For instance, the 2015-2016 El Niño caused increased rainfall and milder temperatures over the American Southwest, driving vegetative growth and providing more food for rodents that carry the lethal hantavirus and plague-carrying fleas, which live on the rodents. Halfway around the world in Tanzania, the number of reported cases for cholera reached some of their highest levels in an 18-year period due to increased rainfall during the El Niño, which allowed for sewage to contaminate local water sources. In Brazil and Southeast Asia, dengue fever increased rapidly during the El Niño as a result of higher than normal land surface temperatures and drier habitats, drawing mosquitos into populated, urban areas.

According to co-author William Karesh, establishing the linkages between El Niño events and disease outbreaks is a “remarkable tool” that can “help people prepare for impending disease events and take steps to prevent them”. This includes vaccinations for humans and livestock, pest control programs or removing excess stagnant waters.

Image credit: WikiImages via Pixabay

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