We can prevent pandemics with wildlife disease surveillance

Our health is intrinsically connected with animal health. COVID-19 is the latest in a long list of diseases, known as zoonoses or zoonotic diseases, that are carried and spread to us from animals. In fact, 60 per cent of emerging human infectious diseases originate in animal populations.

Professor Anna Meredith, Head of the Melbourne Veterinary School, has worked with world experts to  propose an enhanced disease surveillance model to monitor pathogens in the world’s wild and domestic animal populations. If implemented, this could help to prevent future pandemics.

Of the 60 per cent of emerging infectious diseases, over 70 per cent have spilled over to humans from wild animals, including Ebola, SARS and now COVID-19. The destruction of wildlife habitats and modern farming practices are bringing us into greater contact with wildlife, and our threat to ecosystems and biodiversity also poses a hazard to our own health.

Effective surveillance is central to stopping a pandemic in its tracks, along with local pathogen testing and whole genome sequencing by local wildlife and public health professional teams.

Professor Meredith says, “To help prevent future pandemics, we need an effective model for disease surveillance and management in wildlife that both facilitates this kind of testing and research and can lead to actions to prevent further potential zoonotic disease outbreaks.”

Affordable portable devices have been developed for testing, which would enable a proactive approach to monitoring high-risk areas such as wildlife markets, farms and even wild animals in remote areas.

The global wildlife trade is a major risk factor for disease and a serious issue for conservation and animal welfare. Animals are kept and mixed with other species in inhumane conditions which compromise their immune systems, make them more vulnerable to disease and place them in close contact with humans. Monitoring the wildlife trade is a vital part of disease surveillance, which is made problematic by the fact it often operates outside legal structures. Decriminalising participation in the trade would enable effective monitoring and collection of data.

COVID-19 and other outbreaks show us that establishing a global standard for managing the wildlife trade in terms of disease risk as well as conservation risks would help prevent further pandemics. Regulating legal and illegal wildlife imports, with local pathogen screening would provide improved protection for at-risk wildlife and inform flexible wildlife trade policies.

The fundamental connection between human and animal health is a growing area of interest for human and animal health professionals and scientists, called One Health. This approach considers the interconnectedness between human, animal and environmental health. The University offers complementary training in this approach to issues in a One Health PhD Program, and One Health plays an important role in the University’s veterinary science, animal health and public health teaching.

Professor Meredith says, “Public health measures that apply this One Health concept and approach can give us earlier warnings of potential emerging infectious diseases, and faster global responses. We also need urgent actions to greatly reduce wildlife trade and habitat destruction, and recognise that maintaining biodiversity and balanced ecosystems are absolutely essential for our future health.

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