Aerial yellow jackets on a nest. (Photo: Jeffrey Demain)
Alaska used to be a great place to live if you have allergies – not much grows on tundra, so pollen counts are low. But with climate change, not only is tundra giving way to flora, but there are also some new insects moving in, insects that cause allergic reactions in humans. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Jeffrey Demain, founder and director of the Alaska Allergy Asthma and Immunology Center, about how climate change will make more of us sneeze, and worse.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts – this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.
The World Health Organization is celebrating its sixtieth birthday by warning that climate change is an urgent threat to Earth’s population. New diseases, old diseases in new places, excessive heat and more extreme natural disasters caused, in part, by climate disruption are harming our health, and in some cases – like Alaska – killing people. Alaska is on the front lines of global warming: over the last six decades temperatures there have risen four times as fast as the rest of the planet, escalating pollen counts and stings from insects.
We turn to Jeffrey Demain, founder and director of the Alaska Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center in Anchorage. And Dr. Demain, welcome to Living on Earth.
DEMAIN: Thank you very much, it’s my pleasure to be here.
DEMAIN: Well, actually, we stay pretty busy throughout the state. Your comment is correct, we certainly have seen more intense pollen cycles, both in number of pollen levels as well as duration of the cycles over the past few years. I would say our tree pollen cycle has increased by three weeks, and the same with our grass pollen cycle.
GELLERMAN: What about stings from insects?
DEMAIN: Well, that’s a very interesting topic. This is an area that I’ve been researching for a little over a year. We experienced our first two deaths in Alaska from yellow jacket stings in 2006 – this occurred in Fairbanks. Well, that alerted our attention, so we started looking at why did this happen. What changed? And when we started looking at this we found that there was about a ten-fold increase in the number of yellow jackets in Fairbanks. A biologist captured several just on his property and estimated that he killed 12,000 yellow jackets just there alone.
We looked at the data from a hospital in Fairbanks and found that the number of people seeking medical attention in the emergency department for stings rose from approximately 40 a year to 178 a year. And when we took that back to between 1990 and 1994, there were actually zero occurrences. So, there was definitely a rise in Fairbanks.
GELLERMAN: So, why are we seeing more stings and more cases of allergies in Alaska?
DEMAIN: Well, we’ve been following the changes in climate – now, changes in climate not only include temperature warming during the summer, but also higher winter temperatures – and that actually may be the more important one. But, in addition to that, with these temperatures and more precipitation, we’re seeing the migration of alpine tundra. So it’s actually disappearing, and it’s being recaptured by other flora and fauna, which is gonna create more grasslands, more forests, and actually, probably, relocate and redistribute certain insect species.
GELLERMAN: I was reading your research and you say that 90 percent of the tundra in Alaska is gonna be lost in the next hundred years?
DEMAIN: That’s what the prediction is. And a lot of these predications were made in 2001, and we’re – right now, just seven years later – we’re 30 years ahead of those predictions.
GELLERMAN: So, what does that mean in terms of allergies and insect bites going forward?
GELLERMAN: What are the medical implications of climate change you think we’ll see in the future?
DEMAIN: Well, I think, you know, you brought up allergies, and I do believe we’re gonna see an increase in severity of simple allergic rhinitis – which is actually very significant, and it affects people’s quality of life. Along with that, asthma occurs in at least a third of patients that have allergies, so I believe we’re gonna see intensification of asthma, especially patients that have pollen sensitivities.
We’re already seeing a significant impact with some of the redistribution of insects and people have allergic reactions and requiring more aggressive therapy for that. In fact, we’re now seeing fatal events as a result of it.
And I think beyond that – if you step back again a little further – we’re looking at, what else is impacted by climate change? There’s very, very, very good evidence that we’re seeing dramatic increases in malaria, dengue fever, viral encephalitis throughout the world, even as a close as Mexico and South America. And these are directly impacted by climate change. Even things like hantavirus in the southwestern United States, as well as plague in the southwestern United States –and West Nile virus – all of these are probably a reflection of shifts in the environment and shifts in climate.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Demain, thank you very much.
DEMAIN: You’re very welcome and it was my pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Jeffrey Demain is founder and director of the Alaska Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center in Anchorage.
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