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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 4 2013: I think Gwen has an excellent point that people in industrialized/developed nations are only aggravating the
    problem by creating demand for an industry that is hurting Africa's biodiversity.

    The over-harvesting problem could be framed or categorized as a "tragedy of the commons" type problem (for a discussion:http://conservationbytes.com/2011/02/28/classics-tragedy-of-the-commons/). Today in the developed world people's priorities are different since their day to day needs are primarily met in terms of food and shelter and has longed since morphed into a more materialistic society that we know today. However to acquire beyond the basics we too have transformed the area we live in to the determent of local biodiversity. As people become more aware/ educated about the impact of an unsustainable lifestyle people have altered their habits to be more "green" or eco-friendly, but all of this took time and some people are still not mindful of this.
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      Jun 5 2013: I second Gwynne's point as excellent.
      Unfortunately, I think we are far far away from a sustainable lifestyle in the developed world. Some 'green' technologies and practices are becoming more common, but we still haven't really solved our biggest problem - reliance on fossil fuels and everything we use that comes from petroleum. Not to mention the difficulties of creating more 'green' lifestyles in the US as many aspects of renewable energy or even acknowledging climate change as a thing are political in nature for some people .
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      Jun 5 2013: Sonja, your response made me think of the "environmental Kuznets curve" theory - where the beginning stages of industrialization and economy growth are "dirty," but as people become better off financially they begin to care more about a clean environment and are willing to pay for it. In looking for the article where I remembered reading that, I ran across this other one (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sd.410/full) discussing the transitions from hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies to industrial. The article concludes that our typical technological band-aids will not succeed in moving us toward sustainability, and that a fundamental reconsideration of the relationship between human societies and the environment will be necessary. The article may not be relevant for the discussion about zoonotic disease transmission, but it's great for thinking about solutions to our larger problems.

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