Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Ignorance about Animal Diseases Leaves Humans at Risk

Researchers from the University of Sydney have found a huge gap in knowledge about infectious diseases that could spread from wildlife and livestock to humans.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study of almost 16,000 reports published over the past century found that just ten diseases account for around 50% of all published knowledge on diseases at the wildlife–livestock interface.

In the wake of recent virus outbreaks of wildlife origin, such as Hendra virus in Australia, Ebola virus in West Africa and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in the Arabian Peninsula, the researchers argue that more research must focus on this wildlife–

livestock interface to evaluate risks and improve responses to disease epidemics in animals and humans.

The study found that the bulk of published research over the past century has focused on known diseases that are shared between animals and humans – to the detriment of studies on diseases affecting only animals.

“We know far less about the range of diseases that impact on animal health and welfare. This is particularly true for wildlife, which remains very poorly funded,” said co-author Dr Anke Wiethoelter. “Paradoxically, this also means we know less about the diseases that could be a precursor to infectious diseases in humans.

“In the case of Hendra virus in Australia, for instance, there are still big question marks around how the virus is transmitted between bats and horses, and factors influencing its transmission. And we now know that bats can harbour many germs, but the research investment into wildlife disease ecology simply isn’t there.”

The study also revealed strong links between publication rates, media coverage and funding levels for certain diseases. Two diseases in particular – avian influenza and bovine tuberculosis – had a strong association between frequency of publication, media attention and funding levels, highlighting social and political influences on available research.