25 May 2017

HEALTH - PREDICTing and Preventing the Next Global Pandemic

Preventing the next global pandemic is a priority for many health organizations.

Identifying risks is a critical part of the prevention process, and chances are good that the next major outbreak (like many of the previous) will be the result of a zoonotic disease.

Zoonotic diseases are those that cross species lines, like HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and both Avian and Swine Flu have.

Bubonic plague was another zoonotic disease, and so is malaria, which has been killing humans since 450 AD, and still infects a huge number of people globally.

Because zoonotic diseases are such a significant risk – 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases, and 60% of all human diseases, are zoonotic – responding to the threat is a major concern for global public health.

But how should health organizations, governments, and individuals respond? What methods are most effective at preventing the spread and impact of zoonotic diseases?

The answer is complicated.

One theory is the “dilution effect,” which suggests that biodiversity provides protection.

The underlying hypothesis of this theory is that maintaining a rich diversity of plant and animal species offers a buffer against zoonotic diseases.

It’s a good theory for multiple reasons, including the support it offers to conservation efforts.

If accurate, the dilution effect could be used to support increased focus on conservation and protecting the biodiversity that remains.

But the dilution effect is not a simple one, and some studies have found that increased biodiversity increases some risks while decreasing others.

A recent study found that protecting biodiversity did not have a consistent positive impact on human health, and this is not the ideal result for researchers who had hoped to find something that would clearly benefit both humans and the ecosystem within which we live.

Chelsea Wood, a lead researcher in the study, told Smithsonian Magazine, “I know that conservation provides so many benefits to human society beyond infectious disease transmission, but [with dilution theory] we consistently find a mixed bag, which is not a good outcome for people interested in selling conservation as disease control.”

Despite this “mixed bag” when it comes to the dilution effect, other efforts to address zoonotic disease risk are proving more consistently effective.

USAID PREDICT is a collaboration between University of California at Davis’s One Health Institute and School of Veterinary Medicine, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Metabiota, EcoHealth Alliance and the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Health Program.

The program is now eight years old, and has collected samples from over 56,000 wild animals, trained more than 2,500 government and medical professionals in over 20 countries, and has provided support during 23 outbreaks and 4 wildlife epidemics.

The goal of the program is to monitor ecosystem health in order to recognize and respond to threats before they reach epidemic levels among wildlife, and before the disease can hop across species to infect humans.

And although the dilution effect is a mixed bag, the positive outcomes of the PREDICT program interventions are clear.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak, that ravaged many West African countries, killed more than 11,000 people between 2014 and 2016.

In contrast, that same year, an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo was significantly smaller and more contained, killing only 49 and lasting only three months.

The positive outcome was due to quick government response, enabled by the work that PREDICT had already done in training both medical staff and government officials.

The hope is that the PREDICT program can continue to work with governments and medical professionals globally, offering training and support to respond quickly and effectively to whatever new threats arise.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a published academic, an editor with the Editors Association of Canada, an independent scholar and researcher, and a self-care and narrative coach. She is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and identity - how our tools shape our selves and change our stories, and in how the nature of work is changing as we incorporate more technology into our daily lives. 

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