Emerging Public Health Threat
Zoonoses – say what? You may have never heard this term, but, you have almost certainly heard of H1N1 or SARS or West Nile virus or Ebola virus. Zoonoses are microbiologic infections acquired from animals. Zoonoses can come in the form of bacteria, viruses or parasites. A “zoonosis” (the singular form of zoonoses) is any disease that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans. It is estimated that over 60 % of all new human diseases are zoonotic and that over 70 % of these originate with wildlife and people having close contact with pets (especially exotic pets), wild animals or livestock or their food products. Studies over recent years have revealed a pattern of dangerous, even fatal, emerging new human diseases resulting from genetic mutations of known pathogens previously thought dead-ended in non-humans. The increased mobilization of both humans and pets, plus increased use of livestock and animal products have led to deep new concerns for the international health community. Not only the development of new diseases, but also, a recurrence of old diseases is being seen. Some of these diseases, once transmitted to humans, have the potential to create pandemics, like the one now occurring with the H1N1 “swine flu” virus. Besides causing a direct health hazard to humans, they can also affect the world’s food supply by requiring the destruction or quarantine of millions of dollars in livestock. The huge international trade in animal products for food, plus the large scale movement of people through tourism, have increased the opportunity for these pathogens to mutate and cross transmit between species. SARS, Ebola virus, H1N1 and West Nile virus are a few that have crossed the species barrier recently and now infect humans, sometimes with devastating effects. The mutated pathogens can be transmitted via the food chain, contact with infected animals or can even be airborne or waterborne in some cases. The increased encroachment of humans into wild animal habitats, the exotic pet trade and the increase in the numbers of animals raised in close proximity are also contributing factors.
What is being done about it? One of the obstacles is detection and identification of the disease syndromes. Lack of documentation of clinical suspicion and the difficulty in recognizing the causes is delaying the identification of these new diseases. The detection and follow up study of the infection’s epidemiology will require huge investments and improvements in research. Efforts are underway through GLEWS (Global Early Warning System) in a joint system aimed at coordinating the alert mechanisms of WHO (World Health Organization, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) and others in the health community. Much more needs to be done and international cooperation is required. This is truly a World problem.
What can you do? Get immunized for H1N1 and if you own exotic pets or raise livestock be vigilant about their health.You can also keep apprised of developments by keeping up with alerts posted by the World Health Organization. If you now own or decide to purchase an exotic pet ask your veterinarian about health concerns. Purchase your pet from a licensed and reputable exotic pet dealer.