Based on bat population estimates, the EcoHealth Alliance researchers have identified South and Central America as well as parts of Asia as hotspots of so-called “missing zoonoses,” or currently undiscovered viruses that could be passed along to humans. Although these hotspots have been documented in color-coded heat-maps developed by the team, they emphasize that bats’ potential role as transmitters of viruses ultimately depends on the level of contact they have with humans—including any activity that alters their habitat (such as development) or disturbs their ecology (such as hunting).
The findings also document a similar potential role for primates in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia—and map areas of possible heightened risk for disease emergence and host-to-human transmission. In general, the authors believe that conservation efforts designed to protect potential host species can help reduce the risk for zoonotic disease, at least in part by serving to limit human-host interactions. Future projects by the EcoHealth Alliance team will involve targeting field surveillance efforts around the world to identify emerging disease threats in both animals and humans.
“While our paper is focused a bit more on the wildlife ecology side, and the understanding of diseases in the natural environment, we believe there is also a huge role for infectious disease specialists and clinicians in identifying potential disease threats and in hopefully mitigating risk,” Dr. Olival said. “In many places, we don’t know how often new diseases are spilling over into the human population, so we definitely need more surveillance efforts in communities and efforts to educate human populations about the potential risk. We see our work as providing a rough map of where we should pay attention to these zoonotic diseases, and where we may see them jump over into humans.”
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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