Monday, October 3, 2011

'Contagion' and emerging disease threats

Here's an excerpt from an article by Lynne Peeples on the Huffington Post:

Our proximity to migrating animals, rodents and livestock, combined with environmental upheaval, has created conditions that make animal-borne epidemics more likely –- a theme the new film "Contagion" embraces with enough zeal to throw Gwyneth Paltrow into a fit of lethal convulsions.

Animals carry a number of viruses, usually without consequence to themselves, but those same viruses can prove deadly to another species. Humans have simply yet to cross paths with most of these pathogens.

"In the future, we're going to come across viruses that have been around for millions of years in obscure animals," says Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization of scientists dedicated to conserving biodiversity.

While science can typically track down creatures that are hosts to threatening viruses, such human factors as population growth, income inequality, environmental degradation, climate change and even global travel may all play a much more decisive role in unleashing outbreaks of deadly and hard-to-control diseases.

"Microbes are out there and they are paying attention," says James Hughes, a professor of medicine and public health at Emory University, who spent about three decades with the CDC. "They are pretty good probes for weaknesses in the public health system."

Just look around, analysts warn. As deforestation and development shrinks the margins between civilization and the untrammeled regions globally, diseases will have more opportunities for transmission to humans.

Intensifying agricultural production can also facilitate epidemics, which is why the United States made Daszak's watchlist for countries that are likely to be home to emerging infectious diseases. Combined with the overuse of antibiotics, tightly penned livestock such as chickens and cows can also play a role in jumpstarting outbreaks (as happened recently with both salmonella and E. coli threats).

Read the whole article at the Huff Post.

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