Animal-to-human diseases could be right at home

From Toronto, at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology

A new map depicting where severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or Ebola might erupt next highlights North America and Western Europe as likely locations.

Developed by Peter Daszak of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine in New York City, the map draws on growing knowledge of how pathogens hop from animals to people, a process called zoonosis. An estimated 75 percent of human diseases originated in animals.

“We now have a valid model for predicting zoonotic-disease emergence,” says Daszak. Population density and frequency of contact between people and animals factor heavily in the new map.

Despite pervasive popular images of diseases springing from the jungle, Daszak says that “the main emerging infectious hot spots are in developed, high-latitude countries.”

Increased domestication of animals helps push animal diseases into people, says Daszak. For instance, while SARS probably originated in bats, increased Chinese domestication of civets, small, cat-like mammals, most likely triggered the 2003 emergence of the disease.

Daszak advocates increased surveillance of people who work with animals. The best way to predict the next outbreak, he says, is via “a combination of basic microbiology and public health. We can’t rely on drugs and vaccines alone” to deal with new diseases. “Let’s try to get ahead of the game and be proactive.”

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