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Christine O'Connor

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Can we control the emergence of zoonotic infectious disease?

Seventy five percent of the world’s emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, or animal, in origin. Familiar examples include HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, Lyme disease and West Nile Virus.

Humans play a big part in the emergence and spread of these and other infectious diseases. Our ever-expanding encroachment on forests – due to deforestation and increases in bushmeat hunting – increases the potential for disease transmission from animals to humans. Urbanization and global travel more easily allow for the spread of a disease from person to person and across the globe. These factors combine to greatly increase the probability of successful emergence and spread of an infectious disease.

Despite the clear importance understanding and controlling zoonotic diseases we have not had much success eradicating them, or even limiting their spread. It is hard to eradicate what we can’t find. Fore example, despite many years of study, researchers still are not sure where Ebola comes from. Outbreaks can be traced to handling of dead chimpanzees and gorillas, but neither appears to be the reservoir host (a species that is a source of infection but not affected by the disease) for Ebola.

What should be done to stop or control the emergence and spread of these diseases before they become global pandemics? Should we try and limit close contact with wild animals, perhaps via habitat preservation? Should we better control the bushmeat trade and/or educate hunters and consumers of bushmeat and other types of wild animal markets of the risks involved with such meat? Or, is a more proactive approach possible? Is there a way to pre-emptively identify such emerging diseases, via monitoring of wild animals and those who regularly have close contact with them?

Souce: Spillover by David Quammen

Also see: Q&A on swine flue with virus hunter Nathan Wolfe "We've created the perfect storm for viruses" http://blog.ted.com/2009/04/28/qa_with_virus_h/


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  • Jun 3 2013: One way to be proactive in epidemic prevention is to hold governments accountable for the health of their people by encouraging them to make disease surveillance a priority.
    According to Stephen S. Morse, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at Colombia University, “governments are often reluctant to report disease information for fear of political embarrassment, economic repercussions, or concern that it may make the government look ineffectual.”
    Dr. Morse is a founder of the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) “a scientist-to-scientist network connecting more than 30,000 subscribers in 155 countries, and the World Health Organization's Global Outbreak and Response Network (GOARN).”
    I think if disease surveillance were a priority of governments they wouldn’t be able to ignore the factors contributing to disease transmission such as deforestation and bushmeat hunting. This could have positive repercussions for not only control of disease, but other environmental issues as well.
    Here’s the article about infectious disease monitoring: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070718001839.htm
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      Jun 3 2013: It also has to be considered how smaller villages may not report diseases to the government as well. Isolated villages often have little to do with the workings of their government and would be wary of dealing with outsiders, even when faced with disease.
      • Jun 5 2013: You and Sandra make great points that dealing directly with villagers might prove difficult. What the governments need to address are the underlying causes, such as foreign demand for bushmeat and timber that causes deforestation. Infection may be difficult to control at the local level, but perhaps with greater surveillance we can prevent global epidemics.
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      Jun 3 2013: Good point Janielle. I think another problem that might make surveillance programs hard to implement is that most of the wild meat hunted is harvested illegally. The surveillance method mentioned in the article we posted for the class to read talked about making catalogs of blood samples of hunters and the animals they catch. I feel like people might not willingly bring forth the animals they catch for fear of getting in trouble.
      • Jun 4 2013: Perhaps, or perhaps Sandra it is the fear of also being blamed for bringing the disease to the village? I feel like getting in trouble to them is outweighed by the benefit of the money they make/ the food they bring back to feed themselves and their families with, hence they continue to hunt bushmeat. However, I do not know if they would feel the same if the animal they killed was responsible for an outbreak of some disease in the village. Thoughts?
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          Jun 5 2013: Hmm, I didn't think about that Sonya. Maybe knowing the potential risks could prompt people to participate in surveillance systems. I was surprised when I watched the Nathan Wolfe ted talk, that the hunter they came across had the blood samples with him. I feel like that is a good sign that their efforts were paying off.

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