The Toll of Animal Disease

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A new study says that a rising threat to our health includes diseases spread by animals, which are now affecting millions of people. A slew of animals — both domesticated and wild — can spread viral diseases to humans. These include birds, cattle, and mosquitoes. Collectively, these diseases are known as “zoonotic viruses.”

 In recent years we’ve heard a lot about some of these zoonotic viruses. The bird or avian flu, of course, has been in the news quite a bit lately and is being closely tracked around the globe by the World Health Organization. Fears over what we call mad cow disease have caused major problems around the globe as well. Both of these viruses have resulted in massive amounts of livestock being culled.

 However, keep in mind that these now infamous animal diseases affect only a small number of people. There are much more prevalent zoonotic viruses to consider that researchers say have risen over the past five years. The dengue virus is in the midst of a global resurgence, and has affected 50 million people from 2000 to 2005, killing 25,000. The disease is transmitted by monkeys and the mosquitoes that bite them.

 You might remember the SARS threat from a few years ago, which was confined primarily to Asia, but which spread to Toronto, for example, causing panic in Canada’s largest city. Experts believe it came from horseshoe bats and palm civets — the latter is a cat-sized mammal that lives in many Asian countries. You might think that rabies isn’t a big problem, but it killed 30,000 people during that five-year span. And the Japanese encephalitis virus, passed on by mosquitoes, made 50,000 people ill and killed 15,000 more.

 These are but a few examples. What health experts fear the most — highlighted by the bird flu concern — is animal diseases mutating and becoming human-to-human viruses. About 25% of zoonotic viruses can do this, most notably as seen with HIV and measles. Yet researchers in the new study say animal-to-human diseases pose a greater risk than we thought — many have no vaccine or cure.

 To prevent animal diseases from escalating into serious health concerns, medical experts from a variety of disciplines need to come together and help identify the threat, control it, and prevent it from coming back. Even veterinarians, animal scientists, and wildlife ecologists need to step into the fold and offer their aid in this ongoing battle.

 For the average Canadian or American, they need to take steps in order to protect themselves when they are out in nature. While many animal diseases seem continents away, the West Nile virus surfaces every year like clockwork. Wear clothing that covers your whole body if you are out in the forest, so as to prevent mosquito bites. And when traveling abroad, get all the necessary shots and learn about any zoonotic viruses in any countries you are visiting, so you can prepare yourself.