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November 11, 2016
Zika, climate change and me

by Isis Gonsalves

I never thought that my work and personal life would collide in such an uncanny way: at the intersection of Zika and climate change.

I am a climate change fellow with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of 39 small island countries at the United Nations, based in New York City.{{more}}

A few months ago, I returned from a short getaway to my home in the Caribbean, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, with a renewed tan, my beloved pepper sauce and, apparently, the Zika virus incubating in my body.

As it turned out, I could not get away from climate change itself. With torrential unseasonal rainfall and a series of the hottest months on record creating the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, it was no surprise that the Zika virus emerged and spread quickly in the Caribbean and Latin America this year. The virus is spread primarily by the aedes aegypti mosquito.

When I contracted Zika in August, there were only three commercial laboratories that processed Zika testing in New York State. I went to a walk-in clinic and, after being screened by a doctor, nurse and even the manager of the clinic, I was recommended for testing. By that time I was exhibiting almost all of the tell-tale signs of Zika: pink eyes, headache, Zika rash, joint pains and tiredness. One month later, the results came back positive for the Zika virus.

What followed was sobering medical advice: that I should avoid pregnancy for at least two months. A connection between Zika-infected mothers and an elevated risk for microcephaly, or undersized heads, in babies has been confirmed by scientists and widely reported in the news. Although, I hadn’t planned on starting a family anytime soon, the warning was unsettling. Just as troubling is that Zika may cause Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a debilitating autoimmune disease in adults.

The World Health Organization has dubbed Zika in the Americas a public health emergency of international concern. Many Governments in Latin America and the Caribbean have embarked on public awareness campaigns and are spraying insecticide to kill mosquitoes, as well as draining stagnant water to limit their breeding grounds. Arguably of more concern to North Americans, is that fact that with warming temperatures, aedes aegypti mosquitoes are able to survive further north. Florida has counted many Zika cases, some of which are thought to have originated there, and mosquitoes can now survive as far north as New York.

Despite the rapid spread of this virus, the United States Senate repeatedly failed to pass a bill to provide USD$1.1 billion in funding to combat the Zika virus, throughout the summer and early fall. The sticking point was disagreements between Democrats and Republicans over part of that amount going to Planned Parenthood for contraception. Contraception is a pragmatic way to combat the effects of Zika, given the link between Zika and microcephaly in babies. In Zika-ravaged Brazil, for instance, women have been warned to put off pregnancy for up to two years. After months of deadlock, the Senate approved the funding before the September 30 midnight deadline.

The rapid spread of Zika is just one manifestation of climate change induced health hazards. Moreover, Zika is but one symptom of a much larger problem: international and domestic apathy and ineffectiveness in relation to climate change. President Obama, in his final address to the United Nations General Assembly as President, acknowledged that Zika does not respect walls. Indeed, neither does climate change respect these boundaries.

As bureaucracies dither, climate change and Zika continue to grow, causing terrible consequences, which are unequally proportioned globally. The devastating effects of climate change on human health are a disproportionate burden on vulnerable groups, such as, children, the elderly, the poor and broadly, people in developing countries. Large developed countries, such as the United States, as well as Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have lessons to learn from the handling of this international health emergency. These lessons are likely to come in handy as global temperatures intensify and set health crises in motion.

The bad news is that ramping up climate change mitigation action now may not necessarily abate Zika, since historical greenhouse gas emissions have put us on a trajectory of rising global temperatures for years to come. However, this is no invitation to remain apathetic to the devastating effects of climate change, including health impacts. With the recent entry into force of the Paris Agreement and the opening of the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the world is poised to take serious action. If we don’t act immediately, the known consequences will be very bad. But what is truly terrifying are the consequences that we cannot yet foresee.

This article was first published on November 9, 2016 by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the UN’s 22nd Conference of the Parties (http://www.cop22-morocco.com/) (COP22) in Morocco (Nov. 7-18), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate-change issues and the conference itself. To view the entire series, visit http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/cop22/