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Climate change allows diseases to spread into the Mountain West

This is an extremely close-up image of a mosquito resting on a person's hand.
James Gathany
Flickr Creative Commons
Mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus and dengue fever, and are moving into northern Wyoming and southern Nevada, according to the fifth National Climate Assessment.

A new federal report shows climate change is driving disease carriers like ticks and mosquitoes into new areas of the nation, including the Mountain West.

The fifth National Climate Assessment says mosquitoes and ticks are spreading because of milder winters. Mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus and dengue fever, and are moving into northern Wyoming and southern Nevada. Ticks can carry Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and are creeping into northern New Mexico and southern Utah.

“I mean, if drastic climate action isn't taken, I think we're going to be facing a lot of different threats and mosquito- and tick-borne diseases is going to be one of those threats,” says Kacey Ernst, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona who co-authored the climate report’s chapter on human health.

Meanwhile, fungal diseases that affect the brain and lungs are also increasing as temperatures rise. Valley fever is growing in the Four Corners area, and cryptococcosis is emerging in western Idaho.

These areas of the Mountain West, and others experiencing new infectious disease threats, should strengthen their public health surveillance, Ernst said.

“If you're not looking for it, you're not going to find it,” she added. “And so, you could have some little local transmission that's going on and not pick it up.”

She noted that climate change isn’t the only driver of infectious disease risks. Others are urban sprawl, global trade and global travel.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.