Health Dangers of Drought – Rodale

Posted on Nov 13, 2012 | 0 comments

Health Dangers of Drought – Rodale

Reprinted from Rodale:

5 Diseases You Can Get from a Drought

By Emily Main

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released figures showing that this year’s West Nile virus outbreak is the largest ever seen in the United States. Is it a coincidence that we’re also experiencing the worst drought in more than 50 years? No, say epidemiologists, who have found that droughts can lead to an overabundance of mosquitoes, insects, parasites and other disease-causing organisms. Here are the diseases that you should worry about most—and how to protect yourself.

West Nile Virus

There are a couple theories as to why this mosquito-borne disease spreads during periods of drought, which runs counter to the logic that less water would mean reduced mosquito populations. The first, says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious diseases specialist and chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt Medical School, is that birds, the primary carriers of West Nile virus, concentrate more around the reduced number of water sources. “Those few water sources attract birds, and those birds go there repeatedly, thus exposing themselves to many more mosquitoes,” he says. That increases transmission of the disease. The second, according to the CDC, is that drought diminishes the size of water bodies, causing them to become the stagnant pools of water mosquitoes so love to breed in. A third contributor may be that more people are using rainwater-collection devices to collect what little rain they do get, and those also become stagnant mosquito “delivery rooms.”

Protect yourself: Much as you might want to help birds get a bath or drink of water during a drought, keep birdbaths empty. Cover up your rain barrels, as well, to prevent mosquitoes from taking up residence there. Don long sleeves and long pants when you’re outside to keep biting bugs away, and use one of these 5 Natural Mosquito Repellents That Work on exposed skin (more toxic chemicals like DEET are losing effectiveness against West Nile–carrying mosquitoes).

Parasitic Amoeba

If Jaws scared you from swimming in the ocean, this little brain-eating parasite might well keep you from ever swimming in a lake again. The amoeba Naegleria fowleri thrives in warm, shallow waters, which become more common when there’s a drought. And encountering it can be fatal. “When you dive into warm water, water gets up into your nose and these amoeba winkle their way into and around the coverings of the brain,” Dr. Schaffner says. Infections from Naegleria fowleri are very rare—in fact, the CDC has recorded just 32 instances in the past decade—but 99 percent of people who are infected with them die. The amoeba doesn’t normally survive well in fresh water, yet when warm weather and little rain cause lakes to become stagnant and warm, it thrives.

Protect yourself: Stick to swimming pools, rather than lakes, if your region is experiencing a drought, and even if it isn’t, use our tips on Finding a Healthy Swimming Hole.

Valley Fever

A fungal infection spread by airborne soil, this disease is the West Nile virus of the American Southwest. Two-thirds of the 150,000 cases diagnosed each year occur in Arizona, mostly in the areas surrounding Phoenix and Tucson, with the rest plaguing southern California, New Mexico, and western Texas. The fungus causes a range of symptoms, including fever, chest pain, coughing, rash, and muscle aches, but most people who are infected with it don’t experience any symptoms, Dr. Schaffner says. If they do, the symptoms are pretty mild.

Protect yourself: Valley fever affects black people more severely than it does Caucasians, Dr. Schaffner says, and anyone who digs around in the dirt—for instance, gardeners—or people who enjoy outdoor activities in the desert are at a greater risk. “It’s frankly very difficult to prevent,” he says. “But many people wet down the grounds around their homes to reduce dust.”


A 2011 report from The Climate Institute, an Australian nonprofit devoted to combating climate change, suggests that extreme weather conditions caused by climate change–related weather events like drought will exacerbate rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. As a result, the authors predict those conditions will lead to higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, family struggles and even suicide. According to one study by Australian psychologists, rates of suicide and “self-harm” jump 8 percent after droughts and heat waves.

Protect yourself: Staying healthy mentally will have a faster payoff than turning back the thermostat on a warming world. Isaac Eliaz, MD, integrative health expert, recommends various lifestyle changes to stay depression free, including eating whole foods instead of processed; eliminating refined sugar; practicing simple meditation techniques; and getting enough exercise. Fortunately, you can do all of those regardless, drought or no.

Lyme Disease

The final dangerous side effect of drought? More ticks in your yard, says the CDC. When there isn’t much rainfall, deer, mice, and other animals that can carry the black-legged tick that transmits Lyme disease are more likely to wander close to your home in search of water.

Protect yourself: The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to keep ticks out of your yard, thus avoiding the need for toxic insect repellents. Keep your grass mowed and install gravel walkways between your yard and wooded areas (those deter mice). Stack firewood in sunny areas to keep it dry. Ticks like moist, dark areas, not bright, dry places.

Reprinted from Rodale:

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