Air Travel, Climate, and Disease Transmission

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“It begins with a mosquito that is transported during
an international flight from a malaria-endemic region.”
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American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene
Public release date: 11-Nov-2008

Contact: jbender@environics-usa.com
jbender@environics-usa.com
203-325-8772 x18

‘Airport malaria’ — cause for concern in the US

In a global world, significant factors affect the spread of
infectious diseases, including international trade, air travel and
globalized food production. “Airport malaria” is a term coined by
researchers to explain the more recent spread of malaria to areas
such as the United States and Europe, which some scientists credit to
warmer climate changes.

Airport malaria is transmitted when a mosquito infected with the
disease bites a human within the vicinity (usually one mile or less)
of an international airport. Warmer climate changes in major U.S.
cities with a large presence of international air traffic, such as
New York and Los Angeles, seem to have created a more welcoming
environment where these infected mosquitoes can survive. It begins
with a mosquito that is transported during an international flight
from a malaria-endemic region. Once the infected female mosquito
leaves the aircraft, it can survive long enough to seek blood meals
and transmit the disease to other humans within the airport. This
type of international transmission creates an increased possibility
for the reintroduction of not just malaria, but other detrimental
diseases such as dengue and Chikungunya fever, into areas where they
are not normally found. For example, people infected with malaria can
travel anywhere in the world in 24 hours or less and as long as the
malaria-transmitting mosquitoes are present, countries can face
larger local outbreaks of imported malaria.

“As international travel increases and climate patterns change –
particularly warming nighttime temperatures and increased
precipitation — the U.S. becomes a more stable ecosystem for these
disease carrying insects to survive and flourish for longer periods
of time,” says James H. Diaz, M.D., member of the ASTMH and program
director for Environmental and Occupational Health at Louisiana State
University.

Dr. Diaz explains that warm, dry summers followed by heavy rain
causes mosquitoes to rush breeding and seek out more blood meals,
which in turn creates more mosquitoes in a shorter period of time.
Similarly, as the winter season becomes more mild, mosquitoes and
their eggs are surviving longer and not being killed by the harsh
winter freeze. These extreme climate changes allow for longer
reproductive lives and prolonged breeding seasons, while increasing
the risk of infected mosquitoes spreading malaria to the U.S.

While this is a growing problem for the U.S. there are ways to help
prevent the spread of airport malaria. “The best defense against the
spread of malaria through international travel is prevention, early
detection and treatment of malaria-infected patients, and draining
stagnant areas of water where mosquitoes breed and lay eggs,” says
Dr. Diaz. “People need to remember that West Nile disease was
introduced into the U.S. in 1999 by international air travel. Before
reaching the United States, West Nile wasn’t viewed as a threat to
North America. Now we see just how quickly and easily infectious
diseases can be spread, proving that we need to take measures to
protect ourselves from these diseases before they actually reach the
United States.”

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The ASTMH’s 57th annual meeting will be held December 7 – 11 at the
Sheraton New Orleans in New Orleans, LA. For more information about
airport malaria and to speak with Dr. Diaz, or for more information
about the ASTMH meeting, please contact Jennifer Bender at
jbender@environics-usa.com or (203) 325-8772 x18.

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