Researchers develop model that predicts outbreak of zoonotic diseases using environmental changes

A UCL-led team of researchers has developed a model that predicts zoonotic diseases’ outbreaks, the ones originating in livestock or wildlife like Ebola and Zika, on the basis of change in climate, population growth and land use.

Lead author Professor Kate Jones, UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment and ZSL, said that the model is a huge enhancement in their understanding of the spread of diseases from animals to people.

Junes said that they are hopeful that the model can be used in helping communities get ready and fight back disease outbreaks, and also in making decisions regarding environmental change factors that could be controllable.

Over 60% of arising infectious diseases are zoonotic and though Ebola and Zika are widely known, there are numerous other diseases such as Rift Valley fever and Lassa fever affecting thousands already and have been predicted to spread with change in environmental factors.

Jones said, “Our model can help decision-makers assess the likely impact of any interventions or change in national or international government policies, such as the conversion of grasslands to agricultural lands, on zoonotic transmission”.

He mentioned that notably the model also possesses the potential to monitor the impact of global change on numerous diseases at once, to know it there are any trade-offs that decision-makers probably have to make.

Published recently in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, the study has tested the latest model with Lassa fever. The testing was done by partners in the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, financially backed under the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme.

Throughout West Africa, Lassa fever is widespread. It is caused by Lassa virus spreading into people from rats. The model foretold that the number of people suffering from the disease is going to get double reaching from 195,125 to 406,725 by 2070 because of climate change and growing human population.

According to a story published on the topic by Reuters, “Describing their model as “a major improvement in our understanding of the spread of diseases from animals to people”, the researchers said it could help governments prepare for and respond to disease outbreaks, and to factor in their risk when making policies that might affect the environment.”

“Our model can help decision-makers assess the likely impact (on zoonotic disease) of any interventions or change in national or international government policies, such as the conversion of grasslands to agricultural lands,” said Kate Jones, a professor who co-led the study at University College London’s genetics, evolution and environment department.

They also identified the sub-species of the multimammate rat that transmits Lassa virus to humans, to map its location against ecological factors. The model was then developed using this information along with forecasts of climate change, future population density and land-use change.

“The next pandemic will not announce itself 10 years in advance as Zika did, nor limit its US impact to two infected nurses in Texas, as we saw with Ebola. No. The next deadly pandemic is more likely to appear as simultaneous outbreaks in multiple countries, and it will be spread rapidly by transportation networks that can have you — or a microbe, or an insect — halfway around the world in less than a day,” according to a news report published by NY Post.

You may think “the flu” is just something that makes the kids miss a day or two of school, but an “influenza” pandemic felled 50 million people just under 100 years ago. The “Spanish flu” of 1918 was a novel killer strain, and nothing says that it couldn’t turn up again.

The influenza virus is constantly adapting, which is why we need a new vaccine each year. But these viruses can also swap genes with a bird or pig virus to create an entirely new human bug to which we are not immune. There is a bird flu virus, for example, that does not spread easily between humans but kills more than half of those who do get infected.

A report published in Medical Xpress said, “A model that predicts outbreaks of zoonotic diseases—those originating in livestock or wildlife such as Ebola and Zika—based on changes in climate, population growth and land use has been developed by a UCL-led team of researchers.”

“This model is a major improvement in our understanding of the spread of diseases from animals to people. We hope it can be used to help communities prepare and respond to disease outbreaks, as well as to make decisions about environmental change factors that may be within their control,” said lead author Professor Kate Jones, UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment and ZSL.

“Our new approach successfully predicts outbreaks of individual diseases by pairing the changes in the host’s distribution as the environment changes with the mechanics of how that disease spreads from animals to people, which hasn’t been done before. It allows us to calculate how often people are likely to come into contact with disease-carrying animals and their risk of the virus spilling over. Alongside population increases, the expected future changes to climatic patterns will drive an expansion of the areas of West Africa considered high risk, especially the western most regions around Senegal and Guinea, the coastline of Cote d’ivoire and Ghana, and in Central Nigeria,” added first author, Dr David Redding, UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment.

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