More work needed to predict, prevent zoonotic pandemics

We are on the brink of being able to predict zoonotic pandemics, say public health researchers in The Lancet. However, more work will be required to turn this goal into a reality.

"With new technologies, for the first time in history we are now poised to predict and prevent emerging infections at the source, before they reach us. But we're in the very early stages of learning how to use these new capabilities," said lead author Stephen Morse in a press release.

The paper, which forms part of a series highlighting the public health threat of zoonotic pandemics, says that recent advances, such as developments in modeling and technology, database design, and molecular screening techniques, have edged us closer to the goal of predicting outbreaks.

However, greater surveillance, better understanding of molecular signatures of potential pathogens, and a greater ability to predict the human virulence of pathogens from other species, are just some of the improvements needed to enhance our ability to do so.

The authors also press for a more "anthropocentric" approach to pandemic prevention, on the basis that most new outbreaks of infectious disease are due to human behavior and movement, and urge that social science research is integrated into the study of emerging disease.

They say that in addition to preemption and prediction of outbreaks, simple measures could help limit the spread of infectious diseases. In particular, occupational exposure, such as to hunters, food handlers, and livestock workers could be targeted in so-called "hotspots" for disease. They also suggest giving industries and consumers incentives to diminish outbreak-promoting activities.

The authors say that, while much has been done in the previous 20 years to strengthen public health surveillance for emerging infections, coverage remains fragmented around the globe.

While commending initiatives, such as the US Agency for International Developments, Emerging Pandemic Threats program and the revised International Health Regulations, they say that more coordinated efforts are needed.

"Zoonotic diseases, by definition, should be a key mission of human-health agencies, agricultural authorities and producers, and natural resource managers, all working cooperatively," conclude Peter Daszak (EcoHealth Alliance, New York, USA) and co-authors.

"Substantial investments in each of these challenges are essential because the ecological and social changes worldwide that allow the emergence of infectious diseases are increasing at an unprecedented rate."

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Kirsty Oswald

Written by

Kirsty Oswald

Kirsty has a B.Sc. in Human Sciences from University College London. After several years working as medical copywriter, she became a medical journalist and is now freelance. Kirsty also works part-time as an editor for a London-based charity. She is particularly interested in the social and cultural aspects of science.


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