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Studying satellite maps of where forest was being cut down and where it was left standing, the researchers compared the patchwork to the locations of recent malaria outbreaks.They realized the primates were concentrating in the remaining fragments of forest habitat, possibly increasing disease transmission among their own populations.The types of mosquitoes that do well in this radically altered ecosystem are more “vector competent,” which means their systems are particularly good at manufacturing a lot of the pathogen that causes malaria.
The most recent example came to light this month in the , with researchers documenting a steep rise in human malaria cases in a region of Malaysian Borneo undergoing rapid deforestation.
This form of the disease was once found mainly in primates called macaques, and scientists from the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene wondered why there was a sudden spike in human cases.
Much of the work has been done in Peru, where in one region in the 1990s cases of malaria went from 600 per year to 120,000, just after a road was built into virgin forest and people began clearing land for farms.
The cascade of human-induced ecological changes dramatically reduces mosquito diversity.
Forests contain numerous pathogens that have been passed back and forth between mosquitoes and mammals for ages. A flood of sunlight pouring onto the once-shady forest floor, for example, increases water temperatures, which can aid mosquito breeding, explained Amy Vittor, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Florida.
Because they evolved together, these viruses often cause few or no symptoms in their hosts, providing “a protective effect from a homegrown infection,” says Richard Pollack of the T. She is an expert in the ecology of deforestation and malaria, which is where this dynamic is best understood.
In Borneo, an island shared by Indonesia and Malaysia, some of the world’s oldest tropical forests are being cut down and replaced with oil palm plantations at a breakneck pace.
Wiping forests high in biodiversity off the land for monoculture plantations causes numerous environmental problems, from the destruction of wildlife habitat to the rapid release of stored carbon, which contributes to global warming.
Then, as humans worked on the new palm plantations, near the recently created forest edges, mosquitoes that thrived in this new habitat carried the disease from macaques to people. “In years when there is a lot of land clearance you get a spike in leptospirosis [a potentially fatal bacterial disease] cases, and in malaria and dengue,” says Peter Daszak, the president of Ecohealth Alliance, which is part of a global effort to understand and ameliorate these dynamics.
“Deforestation creates ideal habitat for some diseases.” The Borneo malaria study is the latest piece of a growing body of scientific evidence showing how cutting down large swaths of forests is a major factor in a serious human health problem — the outbreak of some of the world’s most serious infectious diseases that emerge from wildlife and insects in forests.