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30000 year old virus revived from permafrost: 5 diseases highlighted from climate change

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
30,000 year old virus brought back to life

Researchers warn that climate change could mean infectious diseases that were previously considered rare could reappear. One disease that be sexually transmitted from fish is anticipated to become more prevalent with global warming. Recently researchers revived a 30,000 year old virus in the laboratory from permafrost in Siberia, leading to speculation that other viruses could re-emerge of other infectious diseases that could impact human health.

Sexually transmitted food poisoning

Researchers have documented two cases of sexually transmitted food poisoning that was passed from men to women after the men ate contaminated fish. How did it happen? The men’s semen contained the fish poison known as ciguatera. The finding that was published in the journal Clinical Toxicology could still be relevant today. Scientists warn the disease could become more easily transmitted from climate change, according to a recent study published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Disease.

Symptoms of ciguatera include hallucinations and painful sex. One of the problems with the poison is that you can’t detect it from smell or taste of the fish you’re eating. Cooking, cleaning or freezing won’t destroy the toxin.


A recently reported finding in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) describes revival of a 30,000 year old virus known as Pithovirus sibericum that was retrieved from permafrost in a laboratory setting. Though this virus is not harmful to humans, scientists suggest diseases such as smallpox could also reappear as the result of climate change.

Smallpox was once considered to be eradicated and mainly affected children and young adults. The disease causes a crusty rash, fatigue, fever and excessive bleeding. There are two types of smallpox - one is known as Variola major and the less serious that rarely leads to death is Variola minor.


This virus has been considered rare. Hantavirus can be fatal. The virus affects the respiratory system and is spread by mice and rats. Early symptoms include fatigue, muscle aches, fever and chills that can easily be mistaken for flu.

Researchers warn that climate change from milder winters that is favorable to increased rodent populations could mean hantavirus epidemics during warmer months.


Humans can become infected with leptospirosis from the urine or feces of animals, including dogs; not just wild animals. Animal saliva and food can also spread the disease.

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Unfortunately, animals don’t show symptoms when they’re infected with the bacteria. Rarely, humans can spread the disease, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The disease is most common in tropical climates and is also considered to be rare in the U.S. But researchers believe climate change could make leptospirosis become more widespread. What that means is a need for increased awareness as temperatures increase. The highest incidence occurs in Hawaii.

Bubonic plague

Bubonic plague may not be something we just read about in history books. Increasing rainfall is a concern of scientists for more virulent strains of the plague that include bubonic (also called Black Death), septicemic and pneumonic plague.

Researchers recently reconstructed how plague could quickly spread across China as a result of climate change in findings that were published February 12, 2014 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The study authors write: “We found that plague spread velocity was positively associated with wet conditions (measured by an index of drought and flood events) in China, probably due to flood-driven transmission by people or rodents.”

It’s not just global warming that could mean the revival of infectious diseases we haven’t seen for decades. Scientists also explain how easily it is to spread infection to cause pandemic because of urbanization and migration. These five infectious diseases have been highlighted as a threat to human health that can come from climate change.

Revival of the Pithovirus sibericum from permafrost also highlights the potential for emerging infectious diseases that could impact human health in new ways. "This is an indication that viruses pathogenic for human or animals might also be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused planet-wide epidemics in the past," said Jean-Michel Claverie, one of the study's co-authors in a a press release.


Climate change and emerging infectious diseases
Paul R. Epstein

“Climate changes and emerging diseases. What new infectious diseases and health problem can be expected?”


Image of Permafrost courtesy Wikimedia Commons