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Britain faces plagues as climate warms

MINISTERS HAVE ordered an investigation into the dangers of malaria and other tropical diseases spreading to Britain as the climate warms up.

News of the study, to be presented to Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, next year, comes as New York struggles to halt an epidemic of a fatal disease normally confined to the Deep South of the US.

Three United Nations agencies have warned that malaria and encephalitis - the mosquito-borne disease which has killed three people in New York in recent weeks - are just two among a host of plagues likely to be visited on temperate countries as a result of global warming. They will be all the more deadly because they will be spreading among populations which have not built up any immunity to them.

Insects spread rapidly as weather warms up, a report by the agencies - the World Health Organisation, the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme - said three years ago. Disease-carrying insects breed faster in higher temperatures and feed more, raising the chance of their affecting people.

Last week helicopters started spraying New York with pesticides in an attempt to kill the mosquito carrying the disease, St Louis encephalitis, which kills up to a third of those who contract it.

The mosquitoes, which transmit the disease from birds, are not found in Europe. But a similar encephalitis, spread by the sheep tick, is well established in France and Eastern Europe. Experts say warmer weather is likely to bring it to Britain, as the tick is common here, too.

Britain is also primed for malaria. Four out of our 40 mosquito species could spread it if they became infected. And every year there are hundreds of cases of the disease in Britain among travellers who have just returned from the tropics.

Dr Ian Burgess, a director of the Medical Entomology Centre at Cambridge, says it is "miraculous" that the returning travellers and the susceptible mosquitoes have not yet come together, making the disease - which infects one in 20 people in the world and kills two million a year - endemic in Britain. He says that aircraft returning from infested areas should be sprayed, to kill the mosquitoes.

Other diseases poised to spread to Britain as the weather warms up are:

t Leishmaniasis - which brings fever, enlargement of the spleen and progressive emaciation, and can kill. It is spread by a sandfly which already lives in Jersey.

t Lyme disease - a fever spread by ticks. The British government regards the growth of the disease as a key indicator that the climate is changing.

t Rickettsiosis or Boutonneuse fever - a high fever which can last for two months and cause delirium, stupor and coma. It is spread by the English dog flea and is well established throughout the Mediterranean.

t Dengue fever - which can cause haemorrhagic pneumonia and circulatory failure. It spread in the US from mosquitoes in water in imported used tyres.

Global warming, as the UN reports, is also likely to increase the numbers of pests such as cockroaches and rats.