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Submission + - The Ecology of Disease

Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Jim Robbins writes that disease, it turns out, is largely an environmental issue and most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen but are a result of things people do to nature. A study released earlier this month by the International Livestock Research Institute found that more than two million people a year are killed by diseases that spread to humans from wild and domestic animals. The Nipah virus in South Asia, and the closely related Hendra virus in Australia, both in the genus of henipah viruses, are the most urgent examples of how disrupting an ecosystem can cause disease. In Australia, where four people and dozens of horses have died of Hendra, suburbanization lured infected bats that were once forest-dwellers into backyards and pastures. If a henipah virus evolves to be transmitted readily through casual contact, the concern is that it could leave the jungle and spread throughout Asia or the world. “Nipah is spilling over, and we are observing these small clusters of cases — and it’s a matter of time that the right strain will come along and efficiently spread among people,” says Jonathan Epstein, a veterinarian with EcoHealth Alliance. A new project called Predict is trying to figure out, based on how people alter the landscape — with a new farm or road, for example — where the next diseases are likely to spill over into humans and how to spot them when they do emerge, before they can spread. They are gathering blood, saliva and other samples from high-risk wildlife species to create a library of viruses so that if one does infect humans, it can be more quickly identified and they are studying ways of managing forests, wildlife and livestock to prevent diseases from leaving the woods and becoming the next pandemic. “It’s not about keeping pristine forest pristine and free of people,” says Simon Anthony, a molecular virologist at EcoHealth. “It’s learning how to do things sustainably. If you can get a handle on what it is that drives the emergence of a disease, then you can learn to modify environments sustainably.”"

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