Tracking Disease; Changing the Environment Changes the Way Viruses Evolve and Spread. A Leading Wildlife Biologist Explains How This Knowledge Can Prevent Future Outbreaks

By Underwood, Anne | Newsweek, November 14, 2005 | Go to article overview

Tracking Disease; Changing the Environment Changes the Way Viruses Evolve and Spread. A Leading Wildlife Biologist Explains How This Knowledge Can Prevent Future Outbreaks


Underwood, Anne, Newsweek


Byline: Anne Underwood

Protection of the environment often seems like a low-priority issue when stacked up against more immediate concerns. But a healthy environment is no mere luxury, says Mary Pearl, president of the Wildlife Trust. It is a prerequisite for human health. Pearl and her colleagues spearheaded the development of "conservation medicine"--a scientific exploration of the links between the health of humans, wildlife and ecosystems. Among the trust's current projects: a collaboration to monitor the spread of avian flu among wild birds. The trust's Consortium for Conservation Medicine has also been making headlines. Last month Science magazine published research by an international team of scientists, including Peter Daszak and Jonathan Epstein at the consortium, showing that severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, originated in Chinese horseshoe bats.

Pearl spoke in New York recently with NEWSWEEK's Anne Underwood. Excerpts:

UNDERWOOD: How did the whole idea of conservation medicine develop?

PEARL: It's an approach that evolved from the recognition of a crisis--namely, unprecedented levels of disease, driven by human-induced environmental degradation. Since the mid-1970s, more than 30 new diseases have emerged, including AIDS, Ebola, Lyme disease and SARS. Most of these are believed to have moved from wildlife to human populations. Yet no one was getting a grip on the totality of the picture. Damaged ecosystems--characterized by toxins, degradation of habitat, removal of species and climate change--create conditions for pathogens to move in ways they wouldn't normally move.

How so?

The destruction of the Peruvian rain forest, for example, has led to an explosion of malaria-bearing mosquitoes that thrive in sunlit ponds created by logging operations. Even a 1 percent increase in deforestation leads to an 8 percent increase in mosquitoes, according to Jonathan Patz at the University of Wisconsin.

In our own backyard, Lyme disease is a good example. The [bacterium in tick saliva] that causes Lyme disease has been around a very long time. But only recently has it emerged as a cause of disease in humans. That's because we have chopped up forests into suburbs. White-footed mice are happy living in little clusters of rhododendrons in the suburbs, so they proliferate. But they also carry Lyme disease, which passes from mice to the ticks that suck their blood.

In a healthy forest, there would be many more species for the ticks to feed on, including chipmunks, weasels and foxes, which are generally poor reservoirs for Lyme disease. These species also outcompete or prey on mice, reducing their numbers. As a result, a tick in the Adirondacks is less likely to carry Lyme disease than a tick in a suburb like Scarsdale.

You mentioned global warming earlier. What impact does that have on health?

The range of certain diseases expands. As oceans warm, sea turtles are moving farther north and south, bringing fibropapilloma virus with them and spreading it to new populations. FPV is related to human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer. Now, for the first time, it's been seen in manatees.

Another example is mosquito-borne diseases. A United Nations report released last week predicts the movement of malaria into southern Europe and the United States.

Does the wild-animal trade play a role in the spread of disease?

You never import just one species. You import the animal and all its parasites and pathogens. A few weeks ago, the British government identified the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in an imported parrot that was being held in quarantine. But half the wildlife trade is illegal, so it's not even being monitored.

Live-animal markets are also a concern. We recently learned that SARS originated in the Chinese horseshoe bat. The bats live in remote caves, but merchants in China brought them into live-animal markets, chopped them up on the same cutting boards used for poultry and didn't wear gloves or masks. …

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