MONDAY, July 18, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The emerging threat to humans of animal-borne infectious diseases such as SARS, mad cow disease, West Nile virus and avian flu make it crucial that government and private groups dealing with animal health and research cooperate fully, according to a new report.
The report from the National Academies' National Research Council, titled Animal Health at the Crossroads: Preventing, Detecting, and Diagnosing Animal Diseases, concludes that centralized coordination is needed to bring together the work of public and private groups that safeguard animal health.
That coordination should include sharing information among agencies and improved communication with the public, especially during animal disease outbreaks, the report's authors said.
One expert thinks the committee has identified a critical health problem.
"The council has highlighted our challenges at the intersection of human and animal health. Seventy percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses -- infections that jump from animals to humans," said Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a professor of neurology, anatomy and neurobiology, and director of the Center for Immunopathogenesis and Infectious Diseases and the Center for Developmental Neuroscience at Columbia University in New York City.
"Examples include influenza, West Nile, Ebola, Marburg, and HIV," he noted. "Only by investing in infrastructure and training programs and by improving communication between the fields of human and animal medicine can we hope to reduce our vulnerability."
According to experts, the urgent need for this type of cooperative effort was highlighted by the confirmation in June of a U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease. Beyond its potential harm to human health, the case illustrates the economic impact of disease outbreaks, with some countries closing their markets to U.S. beef and beef products.
In addition, emerging diseases and the possibility of bioterrorists targeting the food supply are some of the new threats faced by the animal-health community, the report noted.
Right now, there are dozens of federal and state agencies, university laboratories and private companies monitoring and maintaining animal health in the United States. Many government agencies have similar functions, yet there are gaps in responsibility, particularly in federal oversight of wild animal diseases, the report found.
According to the experts drafting the report, agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security should help develop new technologies for preventing and detecting diseases.
Since the problem is global, the committee urged the federal government to have new agreements with other countries and international organizations to create a worldwide system for preventing and detecting animal diseases. In addition, new laws are also needed to increase controls over the sale and possession of exotic and wild animals, the report said.
The committee also recommended that government and the private sector raise public awareness of the threat animal diseases can play in damaging human health and the $2 trillion U.S. food and fiber industry.
In a second report, called Critical Needs for Research in Veterinary Science, the National Academies' National Research Council noted that there is a shortage of veterinarians choosing careers in public health and research -- just at a time when the threat from animal diseases is growing.
The report calls for increasing the number of research veterinarians through more government support, new educational opportunities and financial incentives.
Another expert agreed that the threat of animal-borne disease is a real and present danger.
"The notion that no man is an island has particular relevance to infectious disease," said Dr. David L. Katz, an associate clinical professor of public health and director of the Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine. "When any one of us acquires a transmissible infection, it increases the risk for all those we contact, too. And in an age of global travel, we are all living on the same Petri dish," he added.
"It is time to recognize that no species is an island, either," Katz said. "Modern plagues among humans such as HIV and dreaded pathogens such as Ebola virus likely trace their origins to animal infections. We face the threat, perhaps the imminent threat, of the next great flu pandemic. And if it comes, where will it have originated? In birds. The next great plague among humans may well be bird flu."
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases can tell you more about emerging infectious diseases.