Could El Niño Have Sparked the Zika Epidemic?

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Could El Niño Have Sparked the Zika Epidemic?

At this point, most, if not all of us, have heard about the Zika virus, as well as the terrible birth defects it can cause. Yet, though we are informed about the terrors of the virus, few of us actually know why or how the epidemic so suddenly came about.

Scientists are beginning to theorize that El Niño, an abnormal weather pattern that is caused by the warming of the Pacific Ocean near the equator, is the root of the problem. Take a look at the facts: the 2015-2016 El Niño is one of the strongest on record, causing heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures throughout South America and up through the southern United States. This warm weather and heavy rainfall provided the ideal breeding conditions for the mosquito.

In order to test this theory, scientists conducted a study during which they recorded the effect of temperature on the Aedes aegypti (the yellow fever mosquito) and the Audes albopictus (the Asian tiger mosquito). These are the two main types of mosquitos known to carry the Zika virus, both of which are found in the tropics.

The results of the study showed that rising temperatures can cause mosquitos to bite more frequently—at least to a certain degree.

All in all, the Zika virus most likely could have spread without the help of El Niño, but the conditions that accommodated the weather pattern only increased the disease’s damage. Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate with the University of Pittsburgh’s UPMC Center for Health Security, claims that “diseases like Zika, because of their reliance on mosquitoes for transmission, have an added element of environmental dependency derived from how mosquitoes are impacted.”

Photo: frankieleon, CC-BY

Elizabeth Chambers is a health intern with Paste and a freelance writer based out of Athens, Georgia.