IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

14.2.5 Human health

Many human diseases are sensitive to weather, from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses due to heatwaves or air pollution, to altered transmission of infectious diseases. Synergistic effects of other activities can exacerbate weather exposures (e.g., via the urban heat island effect), requiring cross-sector risk assessment to determine site-specific vulnerability (Patz et al., 2005).

The incidence of infectious diseases transmitted by air varies seasonally and annually, due partly to climate variations. In the early 1990s, California experienced an epidemic of Valley Fever that followed five years of drought (Kolivras and Comrie, 2003). Water-borne disease outbreaks from all causes in the U.S. are distinctly seasonal, clustered in key watersheds, and associated with heavy precipitation (in the U.S. Curriero et al., 2001) or extreme precipitation and warmer temperatures (in Canada, Thomas et al., 2006). Heavy runoff after severe rainfall can also contaminate recreational waters and increase the risk of human illness (Schuster et al., 2005) through higher bacterial counts. This association is strongest at beaches closest to rivers (Dwight et al., 2002).

Food-borne diseases show some relationship with historical temperature trends. In Alberta, ambient temperature is strongly but non-linearly associated with the occurrence of three enteric pathogens, Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter (Fleury et al., 2006).

Many zoonotic diseases[5] are sensitive to climate fluctuations (Charron, 2002). The strain of West Nile virus (WNV) that emerged for the first time in North America during the record hot July 1999 requires warmer temperatures than other strains. The greatest WNV transmissions during the epidemic summers of 2002 to 2004 in the U.S. were linked to above-average temperatures (Reisen et al., 2006). Laboratory studies of virus replication in WNV’s main Culex mosquito vector show high levels of virus at warmer temperatures (Dohm and Turell, 2001; Dohm et al., 2002). Bird migratory pathways and WNV’s recent advance westward across the U.S. and Canada are key factors in WNV and must be considered in future assessments of the role of temperature in WNV dynamics. A virus closely related to WNV, Saint Louis encephalitis, tends to appear during hot, dry La Niña years, when conditions facilitate transmission by reducing the extrinsic incubation period[6] (Cayan et al., 2003).

Lyme disease is a prevalent tick-borne disease in North America for which there is new evidence of an association with temperature (Ogden et al., 2004) and precipitation (McCabe and Bunnell, 2004). In the field, temperature and vapour pressure contribute to maintaining populations of the tick Ixodes scapularis which, in the U.S., is the micro-organism’s secondary host. A monthly average minimum temperature above -7ºC is required for tick survival (Brownstein et al., 2003).

Exposure to both extreme hot and cold weather is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, compared to an intermediate ‘comfortable’ temperature range (Curriero et al., 2002). Across 12 U.S. cities, hot temperatures have been associated with increased hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease (Schwartz et al., 2004a). Emergency hospital admissions have been directly related to extreme heat in Toronto (Dolney and Sheridan, 2006). Heat-response plans and heat early warning systems (EWS) can save lives (Ebi et al., 2004). After the 1995 heatwave, the city of Milwaukee initiated an ‘extreme heat conditions plan’ that almost halved heat-related morbidity and mortality (Weisskopf et al., 2002). Currently, over two dozen cities worldwide have warning systems focused on monitoring for dangerous air masses (Sheridan and Kalkstein, 2004).

  1. ^  Zoonotic diseases: diseases caused by infectious agents that can be transmitted between (or are shared by) animals and humans.
  2. ^  Extrinsic incubation period: the interval between the acquisition of an infectious agent by a vector and the vector’s ability to transmit the agent to other hosts.