Castiglione di Cervia – tropical disease epidemics, Settlers of Catan and emergency oats

November 27, 2017

Thurs 23rd - 21kms


I arrived at the central train station in Bologna at around 2pm. These afternoon runs are the worst, where I know I’ll have to complete 21km at some point later in the day and I spend the entire morning dreading the moment I have to put my shoes on.  The train ride from Innsbruck was not the relaxing experience that I had imagined either, as I was sat opposite two small children who were playing what resembled Settlers of Catan.  The kids would scream and gesture at each other in typical Italian fashion whenever one appeared to invade the other’s settlement or steal resources. I’ve never played Settlers of Catan myself (it sits somewhere between cards and Monopoly Deal on my list of boring pastimes) however I fail to see how a reduction in virtual sheep supply could incite such an emotional response. I put on my non-noise cancelling headphones and sat there glaring at them while I listened to the “U2 – Songs of Innocence” album that came free with my iPhone. I really wish I’d invested in a better data package for this trip.


When deciding where to do this run, I tossed up between Castiglione di Cervia or Castiglione di Ravenna - both small villages in Northern Italy that were hit by a tropical disease epidemic in August 2007.  When I arrived, I realised that I need not have worried as the villages are literally 0.07km away from each other, separated only by a small bridge that spans the Fiume Savio river.  As the circumference of both villages is only about 5km, I decided to do the 21kms in Bologna.  


Seeing how small these towns are really highlights how much of an impact the 2007 disease, which affected almost 200 people and killed one, must have had. Following an investigation into the cause of the rare illness, doctors deduced that it was Chikungunya, a relative of dengue fever commonly contracted in Asia or Africa. It turns out that the source of the infection was a man who was infected while on holiday. Upon his return to Italy, the man was then bitten by an Asian Tiger Mosquito and the insect-borne virus was transmitted to others, rapidly spreading around the region. A range of factors and conditions are likely to have contributed to this epidemic (for example travel, movement of species and public health concerns such as resistance to antibiotics), however what makes this case so relevant is that the warmer temperatures in the region had allowed the Asian Tiger Mosquito to start breeding early and its population had soared. The extent of the epidemic and the number of people affected had dramatically increased due to global warming. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this was the first European epidemic of a tropical disease caused by climate change.  Residents interviewed at the time described the disease as so debilitating that they couldn’t even stand up. “I thought, O.K., my time is up,” said Antonio Ciano, a Castiglione di Cervia local.


[Above is my dwindling emergency bag of oats - this is the most well-travelled bag of oats you will ever see]


Chikungunya is not the only insect-transmitted disease that, once confined to the regions of its origin, can now be found in Europe (Dengue and West Nile Fever being two further examples). There is currently no vaccine against West Nile Fever which has been recognised as a major public health concern in Europe and the USA. Treatment is centred around preventative measures such as reducing exposure to mosquito bites. If climate change is resulting in a surge in the number of transmitting mosquitos in atypical locations, this poses a real problem for the spread of diseases such as this one. 


Climate change has also accelerated the spread of malaria, another mosquito-borne disease. As temperatures increase, larvae mature more quickly and mosquitoes digest blood faster and bite more frequently. An article in Scientific American explains how a malaria mosquito only lives a few weeks and therefore the successful transmission of malaria depends on the parasite reaching maturity while the insect-host is still alive to bite.  The article states that “In temperatures of 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) the Plasmodium falciparum parasite[1] takes 26 days to complete its reproductive cycle. At 77 degrees F (25 degrees C), it's ready to reinfect after just 13 days.”


I’ve only talked about the effect of infectious, insect-borne, diseases in this post, however a major report released in October this year found that climate change is already significantly harming human health generally. In fact, scientists have said that the effect of climate change on human health is now so severe that it should be considered “the major threat of the 21st century”.


 Not to worry though – there has been some great research done on how to prevent contracting such diseases. Your options range from more traditional approaches such as wearing insect repellent or lighting citronella candles, to somehow acquiring a colony of bats (an increase in the number of bats has been shown to lead to a decrease in mosquito numbers), eating bananas or garlic or even using this smartphone app. However, shockingly, studies have shown that the best way to avoid mosquito-borne disease is to avoid getting bitten in the first place. Amazing!



[1] The Plasmodium falciparum parasite is the species that causes malaria in humans.





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