V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Rising temperatures

This summer's going to be a doozy.

The ubiquitous senior climatologist David Phillips of Environment Canada gazed into his crystal ball earlier this month and forecast a warmer than average summer this year for Canadians, with the exception of the coastal areas.

Though welcome news for winter-weary, sun-loving Canadians, the prediction is being met with caution among health agencies for bringing with it a host of health impacts.

New and emerging diseases directly attributable to climate change have already reared their ugly, bug-eyed heads in Canada when West Nile virus appeared in 2002, and continues to be a concern.

Mild winters allow mosquitoes to survive, hiding in storm sewers and drains and lengthening the West Nile virus season, said Paul Sockett, a director at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"As temperatures begin to rise ... diseases come into Canada that wouldn't previously have done so," he said.

Another badge of climate change is extreme weather, including fatal heat waves and extreme rainfall, Sockett added.

Floodwaters carrying sewage will poison the water supply and affect sanitation, the best example of this being the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during which residents waded waist-high in a putrid bacteria bath.

Extreme heat is also expected to wreak havoc on world health. According to the World Health Organization, the annual excess summertime deaths attributable to climate change is estimated to increase "several-fold" to between 500-1,000 for New York and 100-250 for Detroit.

In 2003, strangling heatwaves killed 35,000 people in Europe, ringing alarm bells around the world.

In Canada, health officials have also been keeping an eye on other illnesses that could flourish with rising temperatures.

Lyme disease is spread by the bite of ticks, a blood-sucking mite with a gluttonous appetite: Before feeding, female blacklegged ticks measure about 5 mm but can balloon to the size of a grape after feasting off our flesh.

Like its distant mosquito cousin, the tick becomes active in warm weather but can survive mild winters. In the last 15 years, ticks have been found beyond their Southern Ontario and Manitoba habitat, venturing north, east and westbound, Sockett said.

"We've been watching their range expand over a number of years. It's happened slowly and steadily."

Officials are also looking at the possibility of malaria establishing itself in Canada, as the tropical disease once seized residents in the Ottawa area a century ago.

It's also the one disease described by the WHO as being the vector-borne disease "most sensitive to long-term climate change."

Sockett also warns Canadians to be wary of food-borne illnesses during hotter summers. Don't dawdle after a trip to the grocery store and leave foodstuffs in a hot car while zipping off to a coffee shop, he advises, as pathogens are sure to multiply in the heat and poison the consumer.

He advises keeping a cooler in the car for groceries and to eat foods right away.

WEST NILE VIRUS:

Symptons and health effects

  • Most people who become infected have no symptoms
  • Mild symptoms include fever, headache, body aches, mild rashes and swollen lymph nodes
  • Severe symptoms include rapid headaches, high fever, stiff neck, vomiting, drowsiness, confusion, loss of consiousness, muscle weakness and paralysis
  • Older people -- or other with weaker immune systems - have a greater risk of contracting meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain or spinal cord) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
-- 2007

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