How Climate Change is Bringing Mosquitos and the Diseases They Carry Closer to Your Doorstep

For most of us living north of the Mason–Dixon line, mosquitos are simply annoying pests that we have to deal with in the spring and summer. The worst they can do is give us unattractive spots and make us uncomfortably itchy. But soon all of that may change. As the Earth warms up, mosquitos that carry viruses in southern climates are making their way farther and farther north.

Why does climate change mean the mosquitos are coming north?

One of the leading symptoms of climate change is the rise in temperature, and warmer temperatures are favorable for insects, including mosquitos, to breed. On top of this, mosquitos live longer, bite more, and become infectious more quickly in warmer conditions. Multiple experts have credited climate change for creating the perfect condition in which the Zika virus could outbreak.

The following are mosquito-borne diseases:

  • West Nile fever: According to CDC, in 2016, 47 out of the 50 states reported West Nile virus infections (in mosquitos, birds, and/or people).
  • Malaria: In 2013, nearly 198 million cases of malaria were reported globally. 500,000 of those cases resulted in death. While the global incident rate of malaria has decreased, nearly half of the global population is still at risk. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo saw a 25% increase in cases from 2013 to 2014, while India saw a 20% increase in the same period.
  • Dengue virus: This virus infects 96 million people and kills over 20,000 people around the world annually. Most of those who die are children.
  • Zika virus: There are two areas in the US where CDC recommends caution, specifically to pregnant women, due to mosquitos infected with Zika: Florida and Texas.
  • Chikungunya: This virus was first locally transmitted in the Americas in 2013.

Recently, two new non-native mosquitos that transmit viruses have been found in Florida. Before, these species of mosquito were found only in Central and South America. Mosquitos from Central and South America most likely came in on plants and, upon arrival, found Florida’s climate – which is warmer now due to climate change – to be hospitable enough to survive and breed. These two new species now bring the number of new mosquito species in Florida up to nine in the past decade.

More terrifying is the discovery that foreign mosquitos have travelled all the way to Illinois. A spokesperson stated that Illinois state temperatures are up almost 3 degrees from 2015 to 2016, which has led to the emergence of mosquitos carrying viruses. Mosquitos infected with Zika and West Nile have both been found within Illinois state lines.

Across the pond, the UK has seen an increasing number of mosquito-borne diseases since 2012, according to Public Health England.

What can you do to protect you and your family from mosquito-borne diseases?

The best way to protect yourself against mosquitos and the diseases they carry is to use mosquito repellent. Mosquito repellent most commonly comes in the forms of sprays and creams. Technavio analysts expect the global mosquito repellent market to grow at a CAGR of 4.66% from 2016 to 2021. One factor influencing this growth is the growing knowledge of mosquito-borne diseases and the migration of mosquitos farther north as climate change worsens.

However, many experts are concerned that mosquitos are growing resistant to the chemicals used in repellents as the chemicals have not changed significantly in the past 60 years. But don’t worry. Researchers are considering ways to overcome this issue. Some are investigating ways in which to genetically alter the molecular pathways that mosquitos use to transmit diseases. For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found a way to genetically engineer mosquitos to have an average of 80.91% fewer copies of the dengue virus in their guts. Others are looking at developing new chemical insecticides, though this can cost up to $250 million and take nearly a decade. Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC) is a UK project that aims to scour chemical libraries to find different insecticides that can be used in rotation to avoid the development of resistance in mosquitos.

So for now, be aware that you may see mosquitos more frequently and in the “off season,” and when you do, make sure to put that repellent on.

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