While you were worrying about rising sea levels…

Original Reporting | By David Noriega |

As Robert Repetto, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Sustainable Development who has studied the economic effects of climate change in Florida, put it: “Why would Mrs. Nicholson want to go to Florida in the winter and get dengue? She probably wouldn’t.”

Beyond the dent in housing prices, a blow to the desirability of Florida communities would have broader economic consequences. Fewer snowbirds, Kiel pointed out, means fewer people patronizing grocery stores and gas stations and movie theaters. Lower property values, Davis said, lead to lower property taxes and a decrease in state revenue.

The latter is critical for Florida. Pafford, the democratic state representative from Palm Beach County, pointed out that the state’s tax system is built largely on property and sales taxes. Events related to climate change that weaken either or both revenue sources would hinder the state’s ability to provide public services in any circumstances, let alone respond quickly and effectively to crises.

“The very revenue streams we [would] depend on under these scenarios might be affected,” Pafford said. “The results could be devastating for Florida.”


The state of public health infrastructure today

Normally, Gene Lemire’s staff deals not only with mosquitoes throughout Martin County but also with controlling aquatic weeds and African bees. Since the outbreak, the entire staff has been working on mosquito control exclusively. All seven staff members — even Lemire, the unit’s director — have made the rounds from backyard to backyard, looking for mosquito breeding grounds and spraying them with pesticides. “We’ve been stretched the whole time,” Lemire said. “We’ve done well because we pretty much ignored the rest and concentrated on where we think it’s most important, because of the outbreak.”

Shortly after the election of Governor Rick Scott in 2010, mosquito control saw the portion of its budget provided by the state cut nearly in half. This was a small part of a larger assault on health-related spending pushed by Scott and a Republican-controlled state legislature in which members from the GOP’s Tea Party wing wield significant influence. The same year, under the banner of the need for budget cutting, Florida’s Department of Health saw its funding cut by nearly $125 million, a 4.6 percent decline resulting in the loss of some 260 positions.

 “When you drop your number of personnel, you have less ability to monitor and track what’s going on,” said J. Glenn Morris, Jr., director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. This means “the personnel you do have are spending their time putting out fires.”

This year, after an extensive lobbying effort, the Florida Mosquito Control Association, a nonprofit organization, managed to get the legislature to return county mosquito control budgets to previous levels. But the battle Lemire’s team is fighting in Martin County suggests that even this re-stabilization may be insufficient in the event of more or larger outbreaks.

“Most people [in mosquito control] within the state of Florida have been saying, ‘Well, we’re due for an outbreak,’” Lemire said. “And at some point something’s going to happen, and we won’t be budgeted for it. We won’t have the people, we won’t have the resources to deal with it.”

Other climate-influenced diseases

Mosquito-borne diseases are not the only ones likely to be affected by climate change — other illnesses may already be showing signs of increasing as the weather warms. J. Glenn Morris, Jr., director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, said warming seas may have already helped the proliferation of food-borne illnesses, such as those caused by vibrio, bacteria found in raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters. The most notorious vibrio illness is cholera.

“During cold months vibrios disappear entirely from the water column. But as the water column begins to warm up, they undergo blooms,” Morris said. “Even slight increases in water temperature may increase the number of vibrios in the aquatic environment, and this in turn may increase the frequency of vibrio-associated illness.”

Vibrio-related illnesses have been on the rise in the United States in recent years according to data from the Center for Disease Control. This, Morris said, “comes back to the whole idea that this may be a climate change–related observation.”

Another food-borne illness that may already be spreading with climate change is ciguatera, which is normally contracted by eating tropical reef fish contaminated with a toxin that originates in certain kinds of algae.

“This algae growth and toxin production is temperature-dependent,” Morris said. “And there are concerns that these microorganisms might be moving further and further up the Florida coast, again because the water temperatures are more permissive.”

At the same time, the toxic algae find better homes as a result of another consequence of climate change: damaged coral reefs. “Climate change, with increase hurricanes, causes increased reef damage, which opens up ecological niches for this toxic algae to come in,” Morris said.

What might this mean for the people of Florida? The diseases caused by vibrio are usually manifested as gastroenteritis, meaning diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. Ciguatera causes nausea and diarrhea and can also lead to more serious, long-term neurological disorders, such as numbness, vertigo, and hallucinations.

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