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Wildlife link to new diseases

25th February 2008

International conservation experts have teamed up for the first time with public health experts to produce a map detailing the world's hotspots for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs).

monkey

The map uses data spanning 65 years, which shows that the majority of new human diseases come from wildlife.

Conservationists say a reduction of conflict between humans and animals could limit future outbreaks of new diseases.

In their report, published in the journal Nature, researchers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the University of Georgia in the US, and Columbia University's Earth Institute, the researchers present a detailed map of EIDs.

Analysing the map, they said global EID resources had been poorly allocated in the past, and that efforts should focus more on conservation work, which limits conflicts between humans and animals.

The team analysed 335 emerging diseases from 1940 to 2004, then used computer models to see if the outbreaks correlated with human population density or changes in latitude, rainfall or wildlife biodiversity.

Co-author Kate Jones, a research fellow at ZSL, said the analysis revealed that conservation work was of critical importance in the prevention of new outbreaks.

One of the approaches might be to conserve areas rich in biodiversity from development, she said.

The team found that 60% of EID events were caused by non-human animal sources, and that 71% of the outbreaks plotted came from pathogens with a wildlife source.

These included the emergence of Nipah virus in Malaysia in the late 1990s, which is thought to have come from fruit bats, with pigs as a mixing vessel to enable the jump to humans. In China, the SARS outbreak in China has been linked to horseshoe bats and civet cats, both of which are seen on sale in markets.

More recent examples include the emergence of avian influenza, or H5N1, Ebola, and the West Nile virus.

Wildlife campaigners welcomed the findings. Peter Daszak of the Wildlife Trust said if the world continued to ignore the important preventative measures outlined in the report, then human populations would continue to be at risk from pandemic disease.

The team warned that the number of events originating from wild animals had increased significantly over time, supporting the theory that zoonotic EIDs represent an increasing and very significant threat to global health.

Marc Levy, global change expert at Columbia University's Earth Institute, said massive growth in the human population was cramming wildlife into ever smaller areas, increasing pressure on both systems and resulting in more things crossing the species barrier.

The main sources of EIDs are mammals that are most closely related to humans, while some can be picked up while hunting or by accident. Livestock are also a common reservoir for pathogens, and newly emerging diseases can be lethal because humans have no resistance to them, Levy added.

The main hotspots were located in low latitude regions, like South Asia and South-East Asia, which were not the financial focus of global funds to prevent the spread of EIDs, the report said.

John Gittleman from the University of Georgia's Odum School of Ecology said that bringing ecological sciences and public health together paved the way for advancing the field of EID study in a dramatic ways.

Experts called for better biosecurity measures, like screening people who had contact with wild birds or mammals in hotspot areas.

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