Climate change could unlock new microbes and increase heat-related deaths

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The Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI) recently published “Viewpoint” articles by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professors who warn that global climate change is likely to unlock dangerous new microbes, as well as threaten humans’ ability to regulate body temperature.

Ahima, director of Johns Hopkins’ Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, wrote in the journal that “global warming threatens human thermoregulation and survival.”

Ahima explains that people generate body heat and have the capacity to regulate their temperature within a few degrees. But “as heat waves become more common, more severe, and longer, we expect to see more heat-related illnesses and deaths,” he writes.

Ahima cites a recent study that examined global heat-related mortality, pointing out that tropical and subtropical countries and regions will experience the sharpest surge in illness and death stemming from higher temperatures, while the United States and Europe can also expect increases.

Casadevall’s article explores “the spectre of new infectious diseases” as a result of the changing climate.

“Given that microbes can adapt to higher temperatures,” writes the professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, and infectious diseases, at Johns Hopkins’ schools of medicine and public health, “there is concern that global warming will select for microbes with higher heat tolerance that can defeat our endothermy defenses and bring new infectious diseases.”

Endothermy allows humans and other warm-blooded mammals to maintain high temperatures that can protect against infectious diseases by inhibiting many types of microbes.