ATHENS, Ga. - Newly discovered infectious diseases of free-living wild animals may pose an increasing and significant threat to human health and to global biodiversity, according to a just-published report.
While emerging human diseases such as Ebola have grabbed headlines in recent years, similar diseases in wildlife have been understudied, and few regulations concerning exotic disease threats to wild animals or systems for surveillance are in place to prevent their spread.
"With a new wave of globalization on an unprecedented level, we don't even know what the greatest threats are in terms of emerging infectious diseases of wildlife," said Dr. Peter Daszak of the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology and department of botany. "The problem has largely been ignored by policy makers and the threat that these wildlife pose to human, directly or indirectly, should be taken far more seriously."
A new report on the scope of the problem was published today in the journal Science. Co-authors of the paper are Dr. Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London and Dr. Alex Hyatt of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory.
Human history is filled with the catastrophic consequences of emerging infectious diseases. The introduction of smallpox, typhus and measles by the conquistadores in the 15th and 16th centuries resulted in a staggering 50 million deaths among native South Americans. Despite suspicious that disease may have caused similar effects on wildlife, systematic studies of emerging infectious diseases of wild animals and their effect on human populations have been few and far between.
That all changed with the discovery that wild animals can act as natural reservoirs for diseases that can be extremely virulent among humans. The influenza virus, for example, causes pandemics in humans following the periodic exchange of genes between the viruses of wild and domestic birds, pigs and humans.