The occurrence of a tropical virus in Italy raises questions not only about the effects of global warming, it also demonstrates yet again that diseases are not restricted by geography. Tiger mosquitoes migrating from tropical Africa carried the the parasite chikungunya, a relative of dengue fever, to Europe.Similar mosquito migration into higher elevations has introduced malaria into parts of the world where it hasn’t occurred before. Tiger mosquitoes are said to thrive as far north as France and Switzerland.Puzzled Italian physicians did not expect a tropical disease on their soil. We’ve known for years that infectious diseases are only hours away from any region of the world but the viral outbreak caught officials off-guard. It’s said that bird flu is only twelve hours from any place on the planet because of air travel and Asian health officials are much more alert due to proximity.The Italian viral outbreak is an important warning that it’s foolhardy to continue to think diseases are geographically constrained. Some aren’t, and today they can move quickly. As important as it is to urgently address global warming, it’s also critical to control and eliminate diseases no matter where they occur. It’s not unthinkable that malaria or dengue fever, to name only two, could erupt in unexpected areas as the environment changes.An unspoken factor in the continuing toll of malaria is that it doesn’t occur in the developed world. If it did, the attention it’s getting now and the various research efforts would have been pursued more aggressively much earlier.It’s good that the world is now giving this disease attention. But the viral outbreak in Italy is a clear reminder that many other threats are out there and they respect no boundary–neither geographic, economic or social. The relationship between health and the environment is complex and, when manifested as in the Italian example, obvious.It’s also clear that inattention to the suffering that occurs from diseases mostly in the poorest communities is not only morally unacceptable, it’s to invite peril if these diseases migrate to the developed world. It’s in the interest of the global community to continue to tackle the diseases of poverty and to improve conditions that put people at risk.The boundaries are disappearing, and as the Italian experience confirms, we are all in this together no matter where we reside.
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Rev. Larry Hollon is a lifelong storyteller with experience in radio, TV, print and video. He is the general secretary of United Methodist Communications, and also serves as publisher of United Methodist News Service.