The Open Epidemiology Journal, 2008, 1, 53-56 53
1874-2971/08 2008 Bentham Open
Climate Change: Impact on Viral Diseases
, Jean-Pierre Massue
, Jean-Pierre Gut
and Françoise Stoll-Keller
Virology Institute, University Hospital of Strasbourg, 3 Koeberlé Street, 67 000 Strasbourg, France
European Expert, Previously Working in the Secretariat of Major Hazards Agreement, European Council, Strasbourg,
Abstract: Gas emission by humans will change climate, warming by 1.4-5.8°C as predicted at the end of the current cen-
tury. Climate oscillations between warm and cold phases (El Niño) add complexity in the field. The effects on health
could be thermal stress, extreme weather events, and subsequently emerging infectious diseases. Consequences on food
yields, social, demographic and economic imbalances, could also favour contagious diseases.
Increasing vector-borne infections could represent a major health concern. Additionally, numerous floods and massive
movements of people could facilitate the transmission of water-borne infections. Moreover, decrease in food supply could
disorganise populations with crowding and concomitant spreading of transmissible infectious pathogens such as viruses.
This short review aims to present the potential viral impact on human health in case of climate change, i.e. increased ar-
boviruses, “tropical” viruses, and viral infections related to overcrowding in poor healthy context.
There is a consensus that gas emission generated by hu-
mans will change climate, recently warming with an increase
of 1.4-5.8°C predicted for 2100. The main effects on health
could be thermal stress, extreme weather events, and infec-
tious diseases changing in their location or frequency. A
more global approach has to take into account difficulties in
food yields, social, demographic and economic imbalances,
which could favour emerging infectious pathogens. The
main known or probable health hazards of climate change
could be summarized as following [1-3]:
• First, very hot days and aero-allergen production
would provoke more severe diseases and more deaths.
Everybody reminds, as an example, the excess in
mortality ratio observed in France during the summer
heat 2003. 56,000 deaths were reported in August
2003, corresponding to 15,000 additional victims as
compared to expected mortality [4, 5].
• Second, a crucial concern would emerge with increas-
ing vector-borne infections, favoured by a large dis-
tribution of insects dispersing infectious agents.
Fighting against serious viral related diseases or ma-
laria would then represent a high health priority .
• Third, flooding, the most frequent natural water disas-
ter representing 43% of the disasters reported be-
tween 1992 and 2001, has killed 100,000 people
worldwide during this period . In the future, nu-
merous predicted floods, and, as a consequence, sud-
den and massive movements of people could facilitate
the transmission of contagious diseases. Water-borne
*Address correspondence to this author at the Virology Institute, University
Hospital of Strasbourg, 3 Koeberlé Street, 67 000 Strasbourg, France; Tel:
(33) 390243696; Fax: (33) 390243750;
infections such as enteric viruses-linked pathology or
cholera could threaten large parts of populations.
• Moreover, decrease in crop yields and fisheries, or
sea-level rise could lead to messy displacements and
to concentration of populations.
• In a convergent manner, climate oscillations between
extreme warm and cold phases (El Niño), could mod-
ify the dynamics of viruses transmission, as it will be
further developed .
The aim of this short review is to summarise the impact
of climate change on viral infections. We will first simply
define viruses and their circulation. The presentation will
then be divided in two parts: (i) direct impact of climate
change in the increase of viral infections, mainly mosquito-
transmitted viruses; (ii) indirect impact of climate events,
favouring movements of populations, overcrowding, and the
emergence of viral diseases facilitated by contacts between
humans, humans and animals, humans and spoiled water
Table 1. Climate Change and Health Impact, Adapted from
Change Adverse Effects
More very hot days, allergens
rainfall/ conditions favouring
Movement of people/crowding
- more infectious diseases
- water-borne infection
enteric viruses, cholera
Decrease in crop yields,
Movement of people/crowding
viral respiratory epidemics
54 The Open Epidemiology Journal, 2008, Volume 1 Schvoerer et al.
WHAT IS A VIRUS?
It is an infectious agent, defined by a simple structure
made of two or three elements:
– the genetic information (viral genome) coding for
viral enzymes and proteins, corresponding to DNA or
– the viral capsid, all around the genome, a protein
structure protecting DNA or RNA;
– the viral envelope, containing lipids and proteins,
which is not constantly present.
A virus needs living cells to proliferate. On the contrary,
bacteria are able to proliferate on inert lifeless medium con-
taining sugar and amino acids. The presence of sensitive
cells is necessary to allow free viruses or viruses coming
from infected cells to replicate: new viruses in newly in-
fected cells are then produced from parental viruses using
and diverting cellular tools. Viruses cannot proliferate in the
outside environment, if they are not in sensitive and living
hosts. Thus, multiplication of the viruses in host cells will
provoke cellular damage and symptoms observed in infected
humans or animals.
Elsewhere, a virus with capsid but without any envelope
will potentially resist in the outside environment, for several
weeks or months, preserving its entire ability to re-infect and
proliferate in naïve humans or animals. Viruses provoking
gastroenteritis, usually non enveloped and resistant in water
environment, have to be mentioned in this context.
Oppositely, enveloped viruses are usually vulnerable in
outside environment, rather transmitted by direct contact
between infected individuals (humans or animals) and ex-
posed naive, i.e. non immunized people. As an example,
influenza virus can be mentioned, of which the transmission
can be favoured by close contacts between individuals and
also by both cold and dry conditions . At last, enveloped
viruses can also be transmitted by intermediate insects such
1. DIRECT IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON
VIRAL DISEASES TRANSMISSION IN HUMANS
Higher temperatures at earth’s surface will provoke an
increase in global average rainfall, although some mid lati-
tude will become drier. Rainfall can promote transmission of
vector-borne pathologies by creating ground pools and other
breeding sites for insects. Moreover, drought may cause
flowing water to stagnate; drought may also stimulate people
to store water in cisterns, and containers that also serve as
breeding sites for mosquitoes. Elsewhere, one can assume
that massive clearance of the forests exposed to warming
climates could allow contacts between non immune humans
with dangerous viral infectious cycles and their correspond-
ing reservoirs from the forests [3, 8].
As a global consequence, the spread of viruses restricted
to tropical areas until now could occur in the future. It is
commonly admitted by experts in vectors cycles that mos-
quito-related diseases, especially arboviruses in virology
field, able to cause very serious haemorrhagic fevers, could
thus emerge in case of climate warming.
Thus, the spread of “exotic” viruses could be observed in
Europe and North America. Emerging arboviruses (Arthro-
pod-Borne viruses) such as Dengue virus, Chikungunya
virus, West Nile virus, Tick-Borne Encephalitis virus, Rift
Valley Fever virus, Japanese encephalitis virus, Crimean-
Congo haemorrhagic fever virus could be reported and vi-
ruses from the forests could threaten humans, such as Yellow
Fever Virus [9-13].
1.a. Arboviruses: Dengue Virus
This Flavivirus (types 1, 2, 3, 4), transmitted by Aedes
aegypti and Aedes albopictus (Fig. 1), is observed in the
equatorial areas of America, Africa and Asia with increasing
reports of epidemics in the recent years. The corresponding
health concern is estimated as 50-100 000 000 cases a year,
with 250,000 haemorrhagic forms [9, 10].
Fig. (1). Mosquito, Aedes.
Dengue virus can provoke fever, pains, rash and, in about
10% of the cases, serious haemorrhagic syndromes, espe-
cially in Asia and in children. The severity of secondary
infections has to be underlined. Thus, reinfection by a viral
type different from the primary infection could be more
serious, maybe by production of “facilitating” antibodies,
which are not protective but deleterious. In the absence of
any effective vaccine, the prevention consists in mosquito
1.b. Arboviruses: Yellow Fever
This Flavivirus is principally transmitted by Aedes ae-
gypti in forest and urban locations. It is largely observed in
the equatorial areas of Africa and America. The estimation
of the related public health concern is approximately
200,000 cases a year, with 30,000 fatal cases. The severe
cases consist of asthenia, alterations in kidney, liver, and
heart function with diffuse haemorrhagic signs.
The prevention corresponds to the control of mosquitoes.
Moreover, the use of a very effective vaccine, obligatory for
foreign travellers in endemic countries would be crucial to be
developed in case of increasing incidence of the disease.
Elsewhere, climate warming could alter forests and fa-
vour contact between non immune humans and certain forest
transmission cycles. Indeed, highly dangerous viruses, leav-
Climate Change: Impact on Viral Diseases The Open Epidemiology Journal, 2008, Volume 1 55
ing the forest, could then provoke epidemics in humans. This
concern could involve Yellow Fever virus.
1.c. Arboviruses: West Nile Virus
West Nile Virus (WNV), another Flavivirus, is transmit-
ted to birds and transferred by Culex mosquitoes. Humans
and horses are incidental hosts for the viruses. WNV fever
appears mostly at the end of the summer, able to provoke
fatal human meningitidis or encephalitis in elderly patients.
WNV is endemic in Africa, south-western Asia, eastern and
southern Europe and in the Mediterranean basin. It was also
frequently detected in North, Central and South America and
in the Caribbean. Paz and Albersheim  analyzed the
correlation between weather conditions (especially air tem-
perature) and Culex pipiens mosquito abundance, and WNV
fever frequency in humans between 2001 and 2005 in Israel.
Israel is a major stopover for huge flocks of migrating birds,
the reservoir of WNV. In 2000, a large outbreak of 429 cases
(35 deaths) occurred in Israel with very hot previous summer
and long heat waves, comparably to the outbreaks previously
reported in Romania (1996) and in New York city (1999).
There was a recent tendency for temperature increase in the
hot season in Israel. These positive anomalies of the tem-
perature appear to have increased the quantity of mosquitoes
and the disease in humans. Most of the WNV fevers oc-
curred in the Tel Aviv metropolis, where the risk is very
intense due to the combination of high temperatures, a high
level of air humidity, and a high population density. In the
context of future uncertainty on climate change, WNV has to
be considered as an important health concern.
1.d. Arboviruses: Tick-Borne Encephalitis Virus
Tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBE) is transmitted by
Ixodes ticks in an area from western Europe to the eastern
cost of Japan. TBE virus causes acute meningoencephalitis,
more or less severe. Climate change is partly responsible for
increased incidence of the disease in Europe. TBE virus was
shown to circulate at increasing altitudes in Czech Republic;
in Sweden, a northward expansion of I. Ricinus is seen, and
mild winters and early springs are associated with more
frequent disease (see  for review).
1.e. Other Viruses
The 1993 outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome
(Sin Nombre virus) in the United States deserves to be men-
tioned. It followed a dramatic increase in precipitation asso-
ciated with the 1992 and 1993 El Niño phenomenon. This
resulted in an abundance of rodent food resources (vegeta-
tion and insects) and a 20-fold rodent population increase,
favouring viral transmission from rodent to human .
The difficulties in organizing virological diagnosis of the
above mentioned diseases, in taking care of the patients and
avoiding secondary transmission could be very serious, in
the absence of strong health networks. Moreover, weak
healthy structures in Africa could make prevention difficult
in case of modifications in forest areas and subsequent diffu-
sion of infectious agents. Treatment of the corresponding
infections are difficult or inefficient. The prevention is cru-
cial, corresponding to the destruction of mosquitoes, to the
control of contacts between ill patients and healthy people,
between non immune humans and the forest infectious cy-
2. INDIRECT IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON
THE DISTRIBUTION OF VIRAL DISEASES
A major effect could be observed in climate conditions
disturbing the organisation of social and economical features
in the populations. Thus, displacing populations and over-
crowding could facilitate contacts between humans, between
humans and animals and between humans and spoiled wa-
ters, favouring infections related to enteric or respiratory
viruses . These pathogens, thereby encountering good
conditions for spreading, could develop as big epidemics,
possibly all over the world for diseases such as Flu.
2.a. Water-Borne Diseases
Water-borne diseases are important risks in case of cli-
mate change and subsequently in case of floods and extreme
climate events. Viral gastroenteritis (rotavirus, calici/noro-
virus) could burst in these conditions. Caliciviruses are re-
sponsible for more than 90% of gastroenteritis outbreaks and
could easily circulate worldwide . Hepatitis A virus can
provoke acute hepatitis and possible fulminant cases of hepa-
titis in 40 year-old adults from non endemic areas. Hepatitis
E virus can also be responsible for fatal hepatitis in pregnant
women. The protection of water networks against enteric
pathogens would thus be crucial.
2.b. Respiratory Diseases
Influenzae (Flu) viruses have to be included into possible
nuisances of climate change and consequent massive move-
ments of people. This potential severe respiratory illness can
indeed burst in favouring conditions. In 1918, “Spanish” flu
developed because of insufficient immunity in individuals,
closely joined humans and highly pathogenic Flu viruses
from birds (virus A(H1N1)). Two other pandemics were
later observed, in 1957 (virus A(H2N2)) and in 1968 (virus
A(H3N2). These two latter viruses were the result of combi-
nations between human and avian viral strains in China.
Here a particular phenomenon, making more complex the
prediction of health impact in case of climate change, de-
serves to be mentioned. The El Niño Southern Oscillation
(ENSO) undergoes cycles between extreme warm phases and
reverse cold phases. The subsequent changes in local condi-
tions may affect respiratory virus survival and/or human
indoor crowding. Cold ENSO phases have been associated
with possible promotion of larger and more severe influenza
Another factor has to be taken into account: the inactiva-
tion of viruses in the environment by solar UV radiation
plays a role in the seasonal occurrence of influenza pandem-
ics , which could be modified in case of climate change.
Moreover, a recent study on influenza virus deserves to be
mentioned here. Using the guinea pigs as a model, Lowen et
al.  showed that aerosol spread of influenza virus is de-
pendant on both relative humidity (RH) and temperature. By
demonstrating that both cold and dry conditions favour
transmission, these authors made more clear the predominant
wintertime spread of Flu. They observed on their animal
model that transmission was highly efficient at low RH of
20-35% and was inversely correlated with temperature, i.e.
more efficient at 5°C than at 20°C. They also reported that
viral shedding was increased in animals at 5°C, favouring
increased transmission under cold conditions. Thus, complex
56 The Open Epidemiology Journal, 2008, Volume 1 Schvoerer et al.
modifications in climate characteristics could change the
epidemiology of the disease.
As another example, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
(SARS) could re-emerge. This coronavirus from Asia pro-
voked severe acute pneumonia in 2003. Close contacts be-
tween humans and Chinese animals (wild civets sold in rural
markets, bats) could be the source of the epidemics. In case
of climate disasters, favoured by globalization with world-
wide trip facilities, the diffusion of this pathogenic agent,
which quickly travelled from Guangzhong to Hong Kong
and to Toronto in the past, could be recurrent .
As a conclusion, we have to be ready, in case of climate
change, to take into account the potential increase in mos-
quito-borne viral infections and in diseases which are facili-
tated by close contacts between humans, humans and ani-
mals, humans and spoiled water.
Experts in climate changes, which are complex and in-
creasing, are crucially needed. Healthy networks, able to
survey the distribution and circulation of emerging infectious
pathogens are essential.
The prevention of serious consequences of climate
change on infectious diseases and human health will consist
in first, the control of mosquito spreading, second, the con-
trol of people displacements; third, water quality will be
crucial to be preserved in case of disruption of social organi-
sations provoked by climate events. At last, production of
vaccines and specific treatments, if developed by scientists,
should be drastically increased by the pharmaceutical indus-
try in case of epidemics.
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Received: July 14, 2008 Revised: September 16, 2008 Accepted: September 25, 2008
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