In the late 18th century, a French zoologist visiting South Africa documented a deadly local livestock disease, known as bluetongue, noting a “prodigious swelling of the tongue, which then fills the whole mouth and throat; and the animal is every moment in danger of being choaked [sic].” Fast-forward some 240 years, and the disease can be found virtually worldwide.
In FERN’s latest story, produced with Ensia, Carson Vaughan explores a new way of understanding emerging infectious diseases, showing how climate change and migration can cause pathogens to spread in new and virulent ways.
“The bluetongue story shows how easily diseases can emerge from a background of climate change augmented by globalized trade and travel,” Daniel Brooks, a senior research fellow at the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology at the University of Nebraska State Museum, says in the story. “The planet is a minefield of evolutionary accidents waiting to happen.”
Among them is Covid-19, whose price tag has reached least $9 trillion and nearly a million lives lost. “Some of these diseases are brand new or previously undiscovered; others … are repeat offenders, flaring up in new hosts or novel environments,” writes Vaughan. “Some are highly pathogenic, others less so. Many you’ll recognize, but most — unless they’ve personally infected you, or your loved ones, or the food or water you rely on — you won’t.”
Speaking of these new diseases, Brooks says, “With this combination of climate change and human beings pushing into the wild lands and the wild lands pushing back, and then global travel and global trade — boom, it goes really fast.”