Global warming and MERSHumans are not perfect and we often make mistakes. On Oct. 26, 1979, the World Health Organization (WHO) made a historic announcement that smallpox had been eradicated.
Coincidentally, it was 100 years and a day after Ji Seok-yeong began giving out vaccinations. Along with the plague and cholera, smallpox was considered one of the worst epidemics. This terrible disease killed 300 million to 500 million lives in the 20th century alone. But upon eradicating such epidemics, humans became arrogant. We began to hope that all contagious diseases could be conquered.
U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart once said, “It is time to close the book on infectious diseases and declare the war against pestilence won.”
But we were seriously mistaken. While polio and mumps cases decreased, other new epidemics spread. More than 39 million people have died from AIDS since the early 1980s. The international community was also rocked by SARS in 2002, H1N1 flu in 2009 and the Ebola outbreak last year.
According to research released last year by Brown University, the number of epidemics since 1980 has increased drastically, from under 1,000 cases between 1980 and 1985 to more than 3,000 cases between 2005 and 2010.
In fact, it’s only natural. Overseas travel is becoming more common and affordable, and regional viruses are quickly spreading to other areas.
In the past three to four decades, airfare has dropped at an alarming rate. No more than 300,000 people traveled to other countries in 1989, but last year, 32 million Koreans traveled abroad.
So it would be surprising if epidemics from the Middle East and Africa did not spread in Korea within a matter of days.
But we must not forget another crucial factor when discussing rampant epidemics: global warming.
Gaia Theory, which was proposed in the late 1970s, has recently enjoyed a renewed interest. The hypothesis - named after Gaia, the Greek goddess who personifies the Earth - was formulated by James Lovelock. It looks at the Earth as more than just rocks and soil. The main idea is that the Earth is like a living being and is influenced by all living things.
According to Lovelock, the Earth responds to changes and finds a balance for the biosphere. But greenhouse gas emissions accelerate global warming, which cause the Earth to lose its capacity for self-recovery. Then the balance in the ecosystem would be broken, resulting in major floods and extreme droughts.
When the ecosystem loses its balance, rare diseases will spread. The rise in temperature changes the environment, and rare organisms could thrive or common animals and plants could go extinct. Organisms also change their bodies according to the climate or begin consuming food that they wouldn’t usually eat. In this process, new bacteria and viruses can form, and when people contract them, a new strain begins.
Zoonoses are infectious diseases from animals that can be transmitted to humans. We need to pay attention to the fact that 75 percent of new epidemics are zoonoses, including Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which some scientists believe comes from camels.
Climate change has resulted in an increase in mosquitoes and ticks, which carry diseases. Malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, and scrub typhus, transmitted by mites, are rampant because of climate change.
In 2000, 1,700 patients suffered from scrub typhus, and that number grew sixfold, up to 13,000, in 2013. As average temperature goes up, mosquitoes and mites have increased in number and become more active. Preventing global warming is just a short cut to epidemic prevention.
The Korean government seems not to have acknowledged the seriousness of global warming, even after being hit by the MERS outbreak.
The greenhouse gas reduction target for 2020, released for the Conference of Parties in Paris in December, is well below expectations. We’re already battling an outbreak of a foreign virus.
When greenhouse gas emission reductions are too aggressively promoted, it pressures companies. However, climate change should be addressed from a health and security standpoint to protect the lives of our citizens. If we don’t care for Mother Earth, then we will be at the receiving end of Gaia’s revenge. We must not risk repeating another MERS outbreak with short-sighted decisions.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 17, Page 28
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Jeong-ho