“The Last of Us” thriller tv series put fungal disease in the spotlight. But how realistic is it? Disease detective Neil Vora joins Climate Curious to explain...

Transcript: Climate Quickie: What do zombies, vampires, and ‘The Last Of Us’ have to do with climate change?

TEDxLondon Climate Curious

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“The Last of Us” thriller tv series put fungal disease in the spotlight. But how realistic is it? Thanks to our warming petri dish of a planet, the scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds… Climate Curious speaks to disease detective, Neil Vora, to explain why increasing global temperatures means the emergence of new health threats is more likely.

Recorded live at TEDxLondon Countdown 2023.

Enjoyed this episode? Listen to the full conversation here.

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Ben Hurst 0:06
Welcome to climate quickies, bite sized nuggets of climate goodness from our TEDx London experts in under five minutes.

Maryam Pasha 0:17
A guest this evening is a physician with Conservation International. He is a disease detective working in pandemic prevention. He’s worked around the world responding to Ebola outbreaks and leaving New York City’s COVID-19 contact tracing programme. A

Neil Vora 0:33
doctor who specialises in rainforest conservation, you know, for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do public health, my dad was born in India, and he actually had smallpox as a child. And so over 70 years later, you can still see the legacy that the disease left on him in the form of scars on his face that I’m obsessed with vampires and zombies. There’s a really interesting intersection. You know, we use horror in this current day and age, to help us understand some really scary things that are happening in the world. Right. And that’s why you see this proliferation of zombie apocalypse shows and movies, right. But you know, vampires back in the 17 1800s, people consider vampires a real thing. You know, the way we’re talking about climate change, you know, people were talking about vampires, you know, some circles. Yeah. And vampires probably were inspired, in part by rabies and tuberculosis. Right, right.

Ben Hurst 1:32
Oh, my gosh, right. Right. They know, oh, my

Neil Vora 1:36
god, yeah. And I went to work as a doctor one day a week I see TV. Beta TV is a horrible disease. After COVID is the leading infectious disease killer in the world, over 1.5 million people die of TB, one in four people are infected with TV in the world. And that’s a neglected disease. But I’m just saying like, you know, horror is a real way for us to understand the world and what we’re experiencing. And so, Last of Us, I appreciate the show, because it really put fungal disease, I think, in the spotlight in a way that hadn’t happened before. And also we’re talking about climate change and health intersection in new ways. So the show is very good. And if you just very briefly, the idea is that climate change has led to a mutation of a fungal species that normally infects ants, and essentially turns them into zombies. But climate change has caused that fungus to evolve into one that can infect people and turn them into zombies. And so it’s a very scary story. To be very clear, though. No, no zombie apocalypse. As far as I can tell, though, there are a lot of interesting parasites out there that can be on this fungal disease in ants that can turn a number of different organisms, essentially into zombies. Whoa. But what concerns me is that climate change is increasing the threat of fungal epidemics, and also increasing our vulnerability to those fungal epidemics. So what do I mean by that? There are over a million different species of fungi. We’ve only characterised around 5% of them.

Now, part of the reason why we don’t see more fungal diseases in humans is that there’s this thermal barrier that many fungi thrive at temperatures lower than the human body temperature, right? So we’re normally at around 3637 Centigrade. But with climate change, we might be seeing evolutionary pressures on fungi such that they can adapt to live out warmer and warmer temperatures. Making some capable for is going on, ya know? No, that’s that’s one set of concerns. There’s actually one species of fungal disease that’s very concerning called Canada Oris. That is spreading in hospital settings and healthcare facilities that in some outbreaks of this of this fungal disease. Again, in hospitalised individuals 50% of people might die, right. But these, again, are people who are already very sick. But one theory for how this fungus emerged back in 2009 was when it was first recognised, is because of climate change. That may be because of climate change. This yeast developed the ability to live at warmer temperatures made its way onto birds, that then made us wait into people. Right. So that’s one set of concerns.

Another concern is that because of climate change, we’re going to see more floods. We’re gonna see more drought scenarios. And with flooding in some areas with droughts and other areas, we might see the spread of existing fungal diseases into a wider geographic area, right. So that’s the increased threat, but at the same time, we are becoming more vulnerable in several different ways. First of all, climate change is causing epidemics of kidney disease in certain parts of the world because of the excess heat. Kidney disease increases our vulnerability to in infectious diseases, in some instances, we’re seeing malnutrition, we’re gonna see more and more now malnutrition. And again, that’ll increase our susceptibility to infectious diseases. And the area that I work on a lot is zoonotic diseases, I tend to focus on viruses. And we’re going to see more and more zoonotic viruses are emerged because of climate change. And other drivers. When I say zoonotic viruses, that means viruses that are normally in animals that then jump into people. Also COVID And, you know, we saw with HIV, sadly, in the 80s, a rise of opportunistic fungal infections, and it was many of people don’t necessarily as HIV suppresses the immune system, right? We saw something similar with COVID, that there was a rise of fungal disease. So the point here is that fungal diseases are a major blind spot, and I think we need to be paying more attention to them. Okay.

Maryam Pasha 5:59
So this is why he wrote the article, because it is like a bit of a blind spot, right? And we don’t, we can’t treat those as of now. Those kinds of fungal is that as well,

Neil Vora 6:09
right? So the other problem is that fungal cells are somewhat similar to human cells compared to like a bacteria or a virus. And so the medicines we use to treat fungal disease can often have very severe side effects in people. So we don’t even have that many good medicines. No licenced vaccine as of now, right?

Maryam Pasha 6:27

Ben Hurst 6:29
Sorry, for context, I just want you to know that I’m actually learning this all at the same time, there’s been no like pre conversation where I’ve been exposed to this information. This is like petrified Lee, but they’re just casually sitting here like, Oh, we don’t have any solutions. You can’t drink. You do have some bad, this is really bad. Okay.

Maryam Pasha 6:48
You and everyone on a journey right now. Okay, we’ve talked a little bit about that. Can we zoom out for a second? Because you’ve talked about climate change? And its impact on like, funguses? Let’s say, What about the, it’s just to say, for me, one of the things that’s really interesting here is that we just don’t often think about climate change and health in these kinds of many intersections, right, we often have like, maybe we think about, like, extreme heat, or something like that. But I want to talk about these intersections of, of climate and health and, and what that why that’s the greatest threat today, like what’s happening.

Neil Vora 7:31
The point here is that climate change is killing us. And we have to understand the intersectionality of these crises. We’re facing multiple, converging existential threats, and we’re addressing them as silos. But the solutions to these existential threats of pandemics, climate change, the loss of biodiversity will exist in a transdisciplinary space. And that’s why we have to start thinking about how climate is affecting human health is affecting biodiversity is affecting so many other aspects of society, such as economy. For many, many years, I was made to feel ashamed of caring about nature, you know, I went to this medical training. Yeah, and, you know, the messaging I was getting was that, you know, you focus on humans, focusing on trees, or polar bears, or whatever it is, is a distraction from saving humans. But the reality is, is that we need nature to survive. Without nature, we’re not going to thrive as a species. Everything is interdependent. And that’s what we seem to have forgotten we, we seem to have gone down this track of human exceptionalism, that somehow humans are different. And again, I’m just quoting someone else. Human humans, we are not a part apart from nature, we are a part of nature. And so the point here is that my work is about trying to save nature for people and I focus specifically on trying to save rainforests to prevent future outbreaks of infectious diseases, you know, nature, the medicine chest, and we, you know, are basically throwing it in the trash when we have so many and so many diseases that are currently difficult to treat.

Ben Hurst 9:30
Thanks for listening to this quickie.

Maryam Pasha 9:32
This episode was created by our superstar podcast team at TEDx London. Until next time, stay

Ben Hurst 9:37


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