Understanding diseases in animals key to preventing outbreaks in humans: expert

Updated 2017-06-27 14:52:39 Xinhua

Understanding zoonotic diseases is a crucial part of preventing epidemic outbreak in humans, according to an Australian virus researcher who said there is "great potential for risk" unless a concerted effort is made towards researching pathogens in animals.

John-Sebastian Eden from the University of Sydney said the scientific community needs to put greater emphasis on understanding deadly pathogens in animals, in order to predict which diseases have the potential wreak havoc upon the human immune system.

Most new human diseases can be traced back to an animal form, Eden said, such as the deadly Ebola outbreak, which originated in bats and claimed over 10,000 lives.

"A lot of the time there are these unexplained animal outbreaks, and whether it's in birds or possums, there isn't a lot of focus on animals, so these diseases don't get investigated," Eden told Xinhua on Tuesday.

"Many of those diseases can be risky to a human as well, so we need to learn from these examples of animal outbreaks, and find out if they pose a danger to humans."

Zoonotic diseases can be transferred in a number of ways, according to Eden, who listed bites and scratches from an infected animal, contact with infected skin tissue, or transfer of bacteria from an insect, as potential avenues for infection.

While there has always been some interest from scientists in terms of tracing the spread of pathogens from animal to humans, Eden implored the scientific community to make the connection between gene technology and disease research to uncover pathogens that are yet to be discovered.

"We are able to check most animals with specific tests, to see what disease they had, and test them for pathogens," Eden said.

"Now we are working on sequencing the whole genetic material, using computational analysis to work out what pathogen is present and work out new viruses that have never been described before."

Although Eden said there is no need for panic over pathogen-transfer between animals and humans, he stressed there is still a need to exercise caution, particularly as increased trading activities between countries could potentially exacerbate the spread of zoonotic diseases.

"We don't have countless outbreaks occurring all the time, but as we grow as a population and encroach on areas where we weren't going before, the risk does go up," he said.

"What's unique about Australia is our relative isolation. We are always at risk of things being imported into our country, and infecting Australian animals and livestock, and because our animals haven't been exposed to that pathogen before, there is a risk for the disease to spread through the population very easily."

While the impact of a zoonotic disease is subject to the conditions of the country in which it spreads, Eden said all countries have a responsibility in controlling and responding to deadly pathogens, and that being informed is one of the best ways to stay safe.

"All infectious diseases occur at a global scale, so it's important that we understand the countries around us. The key is control, and being aware if there is an outbreak, here's what we need to do," he said.

"We need to have information, not to be fearful, and look at what is happening in these animals to understand how it can happen in humans."

On an individual level, Eden said people should protect themselves by staying away from dead animals, and contacting professional animal handlers if they encounter one.

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