AR-News: Experts urge action to stop animal diseases infecting humans

Andrew Gach unclewolf at
Sat May 15 16:58:00 EDT 2004

BMJ  2004;328:1158 (15 May), doi:10.1136/bmj.328.7449.1158-b 

Experts urge action to stop animal diseases infecting humans
Geneva Fiona Fleck 

Scientists have called on governments to take urgent action to prevent the emergence of new zoonotic diseases-ones that jump species from animals to humans-in the wake of recent fatal outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), believed to have been transmitted by civet cats, and avian flu from birds. 

Experts told an international conference on zoonotic diseases hosted by the World Health Organization in Geneva on 3 to 5 May that over the past decade most emerging human diseases came originally from animals. 

This trend would continue as humans came into more contact with wild animals and encroached on their habitats, they said. 

Some zoonoses have triggered relatively few cases in humans but have wrought considerable economic damage and panic. For example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the disease that produced a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, led to mass culls of cattle. A particularly lethal strain of avian flu, H5N1, first broke out among humans in Hong Kong in 1997. Subsequent outbreaks in Vietnam and Thailand led to culls of poultry, damaging the livelihood of thousands of people in the region. 

Last year's SARS outbreak had devastating consequences for the Asian economy, as well as the travel business and airlines. 

"The chief risk factor for emerging zoonotic diseases is environmental degradation by humans, particularly deforestation, logging, and urbanisation," said Francois Meslin, WHO's coordinator for zoonoses control. 

Dr Meslin said other factors were air travel, which can spread such diseases quickly around the globe, and culinary habits, such as eating civet cat-a delicacy in China-which is thought to have aided the transmission of SARS to humans. 

Experts told the conference that better surveillance would stem the spread of zoonotic diseases, including the use of new tools, such as molecular analysis of bacteria, viruses, and parasites rather than the traditional methods of analysing pathogens under the microscope. 

"We need genetic sequencing of these agents to gauge their zoonotic potential," Dr Meslin said. 

Speakers also said that closer collaboration among veterinarians, biologists, environmentalists, and doctors was needed. 

Like HIV infection, which originated as a viral disease among apes, many human diseases are thought to have come from animals. "It's very likely that most human diseases today were animal diseases in the past," Dr Meslin said.

[The issue the conference failed to address is that some of the potentially most devastating zoonotic diseases are the results of factory farming parctices: confinement in overcrowded conditions and unnatural feeding practices.  Molecular analysis and genetic sequencing won't eliminate the consequences of this system. - Andy]
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