Europe is facing a growing risk of new disease outbreaks as rising temperatures leave the region more vulnerable to illnesses brought in by travellers and trade, a leading health expert has warned.
These new entrants may prove difficult to quickly detect and stop. Tick-carried Lyme disease, for instance, is gaining ground from Russia to Britain to Croatia as temperatures rise, while dengue fever – carried in by travellers – risks gaining a foothold in southern European countries such as Italy and Greece.
West Nile virus and malaria are also growing concerns, as is Zika, say scientists.
“The European Union is a hot spot for the emergence of communicable diseases and is highly connected to other hotspots,” said Jan Semenza, who heads scientific assessment for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), based in Sweden.
With 590 million people arriving at European Union airports in 2015 – one of the busiest airspaces in the world – and changing climatic conditions in many parts of Europe making it easier for arriving diseases to survive and spread, the threat of one becoming established is growing, said Mr Semenza.
Today 61 per cent of public health outbreak threats tracked in Europe are driven by globalisation, including travel, trade and environmental change, he said during a discussion at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London this week.
What is particularly worrying is that only a few European countries – including Britain and Spain – say they feel their disease surveillance systems are up to the task of tracking the new threats, he added.
“Most European surveillance systems said they can’t handle climate change,” said Mr Semenza.
The ECDC, established in 2005 in the wake of concerns about the spread of Asian flu and Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), is getting better at tracking and predicting disease outbreaks “that could overrun the system – catastrophic events, things we can’t cope with,” said the researcher.
Scientists, for instance, have combined information on where dengue mosquitoes could survive in Europe, and during which months, with data on where and when passengers from dengue-outbreak countries are arriving in Europe.
That has led to airports in Milan and Rome, for instance, receiving alerts when the risk of dengue transmission is highest, to help them step up surveillance of arrivals during that period, said Mr Semenza.
Scientists at the Swedish centre were able to predict outbreaks of West Nile fever in 2014, with 87 per cent accuracy, based on summer temperatures, the location of wetlands and the migration paths of birds that can host the disease, he said.
An outbreak of malaria in Greece in 2011 also was effectively contained after health experts looked for other areas like the outbreak region – with warm temperatures, low elevation and irrigated fields – and created a map used to target mosquito spraying campaigns, said Mr Semenza.
The disease threat that now keeps him up at night, the public health expert said, is Zika.
Warming conditions in Europe could make transmission of the virus easier as mosquitoes spread, he said
A surge of Zika in Latin America has coincided with thousands of cases of microcephaly – a severe birth defect associated with small head size – in children born to women exposed to the virus.
With the US Centre for Disease Control estimating the cost of lifetime care for children born with microcephaly at $1 million (€940,000) to $10 million each, the disease is one Europe cannot afford to acquire, said Mr Semenza.
“Zika is the one that’s so scary,” he said.