Environmental Changes Are Fueling Human, Animal and Plant Diseases, Study Finds – Generic English

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The loss of biodiversity played an especially large role in driving up disease risk, the researchers found. Many scientists have posited that biodiversity can protect against disease through a phenomenon known as the dilution effect.

The theory holds that parasites and pathogens, which rely on having abundant hosts in order to survive, will evolve to favor species that are common, rather than those that are rare, Dr. Rohr said. And as biodiversity declines, rare species tend to disappear first. “That means that the species that remain are the competent ones, the ones that are really good at transmitting disease,” he said.

Lyme disease is one oft-cited example. White-footed mice, which are the primary reservoir for the disease, have become more dominant on the landscape, as other rarer mammals have disappeared, Dr. Rohr said. That shift may partly explain why Lyme disease rates have risen in the United States. (The extent to which the dilution effect contributes to Lyme disease risk has been the subject of debate, and other factors, including climate change, are likely to be at play as well.)

Other environmental changes could amplify disease risks in a wide variety of ways. For instance, introduced species can bring new pathogens with them, and chemical pollution can stress organisms’ immune systems. Climate change can alter animal movements and habitats, bringing new species into contact and allowing them to swap pathogens.

Notably, the fifth global environmental change that the researchers studied — habitat loss or change — appeared to reduce disease risk. At first glance, the findings might appear to be at odds with previous studies, which have shown that deforestation can increase the risk of diseases ranging from malaria to Ebola. But the overall trend toward reduced risk was driven by one specific type of habitat change: increasing urbanization.

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