Evidence of the potentially devastating avian malaria has been found in Alaska bird populations as far north as Fairbanks, and expect it to continue to push farther into the Arctic, according to a new study.
The study, published on Friday in the online scientific journal PLos ONE, shows how climate change affects the spread of disease. Its findings could help researchers understand how human malaria, caused by a similar parasite, is affected by global warming. Humans cannot contract avian malaria from birds.
This is the first study to demonstrate that Plasmodium, the parasite causing malaria, exists in high latitudes. Researchers took blood samples from birds in Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, and Coldfoot, and found the disease present in Alaska's two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
"Right now, there's no avian malaria above latitude 64 degrees, but in the future, with global warming, that will certainly change," San Francisco State University Associate Professor of Biology Ravinder Sehgal, a co-author of the study, told San Francisco State News.
Birds living in northern climates lack resistance to malaria. They could face wide-spread devastation as the disease heads north.
"For example, penguins in zoos die when they get malaria, because far southern birds have not been exposed to malaria and thus have not developed any resistance to it," Sehgal told San Francisco State News.