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An El Niño link with a tropical disease?

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1:02pm, January 30, 2002
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From Orlando, Fla., at a meeting of the American Meteorological Society

An analysis of recent outbreaks of an often-fatal disease in Peru may strengthen a link between the malady and the warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean known as El Nio. If proven, the connection could help health workers stave off future epidemics.

The bacterial disease known as bartonellosis is transmitted to people by the bites of sand flies, similar to the way that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes, says Jiayu Zhou, an earth scientist at the University of

Maryland in Baltimore County. In the chronic form of the disease, patients get long-lasting, blood-filled, wart-like lesions on or under the skin. In its acute form, bartonellosis causes severe anemia thats fatal in as many as 40 percent of untreated patients.

Outbreaks of the disease usually occur in river valleys of the Andes Mountains at altitudes between 800 and 3,500 meters and follow a seasonal pattern, says Zhou. The number of cases begins to rise in December, peaks in February and March–the height of the Peruvian summer–and is lowest between July and November. Over the long term, epidemics seem to follow a 4-to-8-year cycle and appear to be associated with El Nio.

To search for a link between bartonellosis and El Nio, Zhou and his fellow researchers analyzed the incidence of the disease at two Peruvian locations between 1994 and 1999. Caraz, a city in a valley near the Pacific coast, has a long history of epidemics, says Zhou. The residents of Cusco, a city that is farther inland than Caraz and also farther from the equator, never suffered outbreaks of bartonellosis until 1997, the year that marked the beginning of the strongest El Nio of the 20th century.

Data from satellites that monitor the temperature of the tropical Pacific showed that the ocean began to warm about 2 to 3 months before the disease outbreaks began.

Zhou cautions that these results are based on a limited set of data and are therefore only preliminary. Also, he notes, there was only one El Nio during the 6-year study period. Nevertheless, the tentative link between the ocean-warming phenomenon and outbreaks of bartonellosis means that health care workers could get advance warning of possible epidemics.

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