Animal-Borne Diseases are Cause for Concern, EcoHealth Alliance Says

In a speech at the TEDMED 2010 Conference in San Diego, Peter Daszak, a leading disease ecologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance (formerly Wildlife Trust), cautioned attendees about the rise in the number and severity of animal-borne diseases that jump to humans. In fact, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans today is of zoonotic origin (a disease that jumps from wild or domestic animals and spreads to humans).

"Around the world a rising number of diseases like SARS, monkeypox, and HIV are spread due to trade in wildlife, and these diseases have serious public health, economic, and conservation consequences," Daszak said. "Using EcoHealth Alliance's unparalleled experience in the field, the organization is working to identify, predict and mitigate disease outbreaks."

As the leading cause of human fatalities worldwide, infectious diseases lead to the deaths of 13 million people per year, and over three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) originate from wild or domestic animals and spread to humans. According to Daszak, biological impoverishment, habitat fragmentation, climate change, increasing toxification, and the rapid global movement of people and other living organisms have diminished ecosystem function, which results in unprecedented levels of disease. These factors pose a threat to the survival and health of all species.

To provide a real-world living example of this very serious situation, Daszak introduced the TEDMED audience to what he calls, "the cutest, scariest animal on the planet" -- the sugar glider, which is a small gliding marsupial with huge round eyes and a long tail. "I'm most afraid of this particular little animal, because the people are going into the forests of Indonesia to catch them, bring them into captivity, and ship them around the world straight into our homes, where we hold them, kiss them, and cuddle up to them," he said. "What easier way could there be for any one of this species' 100 new viruses to spread to humans?"

In 2009 the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) initiated a new global emerging pandemic threat program based on EcoHealth Alliance's innovative hotspots map; the five-year program, called PREDICT, brings together a coalition of organizations to research and better understand emerging diseases among high-risk wildlife and in high-risk countries. Working with the University of California at Davis, and using EcoHealth Alliance's mathematical modeling team and local networks, the organization collects and tests samples from India, China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia.

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