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More investment needed to prevent new pandemics

‘Zoonotic diseases must be made a priority’

Jo Carlowe

Friday, 30 November 2012

New guidance and greater investment is needed to prevent new zoonotic outbreaks.

The warning comes from an international group of experts led Dr William Karesh of the EcoHealth Alliance in New York, USA, writing in a new Lancet Series on zoonoses (pathogenic organisms such as bacteria or viruses which we share with animals).

In the first Series paper, Dr Karesh and colleagues discuss how the spread of zoonoses is strongly affected by human activities, particularly global travel, changes in land use, and animal agriculture. But despite this they say not enough is known about the ecology of zoonoses and more effective collaboration between clinicians, public health scientists, ecologists and disease ecologists to drive research in this area. 

Human processes that infringe upon previously uninhabited areas, such as road building, agricultural expansion, and extractive industries, such as logging and mining, all have the potential to profoundly affect our exposure to zoonoses, yet the authors point out that health assessments around these industrial activities rarely take account of principles of disease ecology, which would inform knowledge of whether a certain process carries a risk of zoonotic outbreak. 

The experts say new guidelines for these industries are urgently needed to insure against the next zoonotic outbreak coming from development activities and changes in the way people utilise and interact with our natural resources.

In the second Series paper, Professor A. Marm Kilpatrick, of the University of California Santa Cruz, USA, and Sarah Randolph of the University of Oxford, UK, describe how environmental changes (such as habitat change) and social changes (such as poverty and conflict) have increased incidence of endemic local pathogens, while the increased speed and ease of travel in recent decades has contributed to the spread of vector-borne pathogens to new regions.

The authors point out that population growth and changes in land use can exert selective evolutionary pressures on vector-borne pathogens, leading to more efficient transmission by vectors and in humans and a consequent increase in pathogen incidence. 

Despite the enormous impact on global public health, no zoonotic pandemic has ever been successfully predicted before infecting human beings. In the third Series paper, a group of experts led by Professor Stephen Morse, of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, New York, USA, show that recent developments in modelling and technology mean that we could be on the verge of being able to predict the next zoonotic pandemic. 

However, serious deficiencies remain – in disease surveillance, in our understanding of the key groups of animals that spread zoonotic disease, and in our ability to use the latest molecular screening methods to identify which bacteria, viruses or fungi are going to cause the next pandemic, and which are harmless.

According to Professor Morse, “There is no question of whether we will have another zoonotic pandemic – the question is merely when, and where, the next pandemic will emerge....Zoonotic diseases, by definition, should be a key mission of human health agencies, agricultural authorities and producers, and natural resource managers, all working cooperatively. However, in reality, the current situation leaves much to be desired, and we need substantial investments in each of these areas if we are to have any hope of ameliorating the effect of the next zoonotic pandemic.”

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