Weather changes caused by El Niño could lead to a rise in cases of tick-borne diseases (TBDs), such as Lyme disease,
in the Western United States, a new study published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle that occur periodically in the tropical Pacific Ocean. They cause fluctuations in temperature, with
El Niño being the warm phase
and La Niña being the cold phase.
In the United States, El Niño is usually associated with wetter weather in the South and drier weather in the Pacific Northwest.
According to David N. Fisman, MD, MPH, from the University of Toronto, Canada, and colleagues, the irregular periodicity of the ENSO makes it useful for examining how changes in temperature and precipitation affect the risk of infectious diseases.
However, “evaluations of the potential impact of ENSO on changing infectious disease dynamics across multiple regions in high income countries remain limited,” they write.
With this in mind, Dr. Fisman and colleagues conducted a study to identify associations between ENSO and infectious disease hospitalization risk in different regions of the United States, and also to investigate differences in ENSO effect between the Western US and non-Western regions.
The researchers hypothesized that ENSO would be more associated with changes in the epidemiology of infectious diseases in the Western United States than in other regions.
They evaluated ENSO exposure data and National Hospital Discharge Survey data from 1970 to 2010. In particular, the researchers focused on five types of disease groupings that may undergo epidemiological shifts with changing climate. These were vector-borne diseases, pneumonia and influenza, intestinal disease, zoonotic bacterial disease, and fungal disease.
In the Western United States, the researchers found that ENSO was associated more with vector-borne disease (rickettsial diseases and TBDs) and less with enteric disease. These effects were most prominent during the 12 months after the ENSO.