According to a study recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives, climate change has increased the prevalence of West Nile Virus infections in the United States. In one of the largest surveys of West Nile Virus cases to date, the authors find a correlation between increasing temperature and rainfall and outbreaks of the mosquito-borne disease between 2001 and 2005. Because warming weather patterns and increasing rainfall are both projected to accelerate with global warming, the authors predict that climate change will exacerbate West Nile Virus outbreaks in the future.
In the study, Dr. Jonathan Soverow and his collaborators matched more than 16,000 confirmed West Nile cases in 17 states to local meteorological data.
Warmer temperatures had the greatest effect on outbreaks. By extending the length of the mosquito breeding season and decreasing the amount of time it takes mosquitoes to reach their adult, biting stage, warmer weather means more biting mosquitoes longer. Moreover, increasing temperature speeds multiplication of the virus within insects, so mosquitoes in warmer climates have a greater viral load, making them more likely to infect humans.
Increased precipitation was also correlated with higher rates of West Nile Virus infection. A single, heavy rainstorm resulting in two or more inches of rain increased infection rates by 33%, while smaller storms had less of an effect on infection rates. Heavier rainfall events can increase disease prevalence by creating pools of water in which mosquitoes can breed and by increasing humidity, which stimulates mosquitoes to bite and breed. Total weekly rainfall had a smaller but significant effect on West Nile Virus infections, with an increase of 0.75 inch of rain/week increasing the number of infections by about 5%.
Warmer, wetter weather patterns might expand the niches of the mosquito species that carry West Nile Virus. In California, for instance, several mosquito species carrying the West Nile Virus have extended their ranges into higher elevations and coastal areas as temperatures have warmed. Changing weather patterns might also affect certain species of birds that are reservoirs for West Nile Virus. For example, droughts can push bird populations into urban areas, making West Nile Virus outbreaks in human populations more likely.
Soverow, J.E., G.A. Wellenius, D.N. Fisman, and M.A. Mittleman. 2009. Infectious disease in a warming world: How weather influenced West Nile Virus in the United States (2001-2005). Environmental Health Perspectives. Online 16 March 2009 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.0800487