How to keep viruses in the wild from finding humans

Editor’s Note: Steve Osofsky is executive director for wildlife health and health policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Story highlights

Steve Osofsky: Ebola outbreak reminds us that most pathogens find us through wildlife

He says: Killing, eating, trading animals; mixing species; encroaching on wild areas risky

He says we must make alternative food available where people rely on wild food sources

Osofsky: Many diseases arise from our demanding more and more from wild nature

CNN  — 

Much has been written about the many failures the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa represents: from the genuine lack of access to basic health care in many developing countries to the fact that the front line first response has largely fallen upon the brave volunteers of the nongovernmental sector.

This week we have learned that a Spanish dog potentially exposed to Ebola was euthanized out of an abundance of caution, another reminder of how the fates of people and animals are often intertwined. But the animals that need to be much more front and center as we think about Ebola are not domestic dogs, but wildlife.

Steve Osofsky

As the human toll and financial costs continue to mount, it is worth taking a moment to consider that the majority of emerging and resurging viral pathogens like Ebola find us through wildlife – or, more accurately, we find them. How can we most effectively intervene to prevent these tragic disease outbreaks?

We likely will continue to invest millions in virus hunting, in cataloging the vast array of pathogens that lurk in wildlife around the world. That is intriguing and challenging work, and such efforts will likely continue to reveal a subset of pathogens we should worry about.

It’s important to note, however, that while there are likely hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of viruses we don’t even know about on land and sea, there are literally only a handful of human behaviors likely to bring humanity into contact with the potentially contagious ones carried by wildlife.

How do we encounter viruses carried by wild animals? We kill wildlife and eat or trade their body parts, we capture and trade live wildlife and mix species together in markets, and we encroach upon wilderness areas at increasingly dramatic scales. That’s about it. Three pretty straightforward things we can focus on. Of course our potential intervention points require more fine-grained information.

We next need to know who needs to eat wildlife. Food security is a basic human right. Many people around the world simply need to hunt to feed themselves and their families. For those people, we then need to identify species that should be avoided if at all possible.

If alternative, safe sources of nutrition can be made practically and reliably available, people should simply stop eating bats and primates. This is not the voice of conservation speaking here; it’s the voice of public health and common sense.

Knowing that bats are uniquely positioned in the animal kingdom as veritable virus factories, we need to know where people rely on access to bats as a food source. There are such places in the world, but there are likely as many if not more locales where bats are a preferred food, but not an essential one.

It’s important to note that the current Ebola outbreak appears to have originated when a 2-year-old child either touched a captured bat or consumed meat from one.

Bats seem to be a unique source of zoonotic viruses (viruses transmissible from animals to people) – from SARS and Ebola to Nipah and rabies – just to name a few. Because of this we should work to discourage the capture, killing and consumption of bats, the disruption of their roosting trees, and the establishment of farms right where they defecate and urinate.

The same can be said for primates, our closest relatives. We share a lot of diseases with them, and indeed we know that HIV/AIDS arose from the butchering and consumption of chimpanzees. If we can make sure those in need of nutrition can get it in other ways, humanity would be much better off not eating primates of any kind.

Will that do the trick: stop all emerging diseases? Of course not. There are plenty of other wild (and domestic) animals that carry pathogens of significant concern to humanity. But avoiding bats and primates would go a long way toward decreasing the odds of a virus making that critical leap from an animal to a human host.

Yes, we can and should worry about the health of dogs from a public health perspective; prevention of human rabies usually depends on good dog vaccination protocols. But the news about the dog in Spain should remind us about, not distract us from, the fact that across the planet, the health of people is closely tied to how we interact with the natural world.

This is not about cultural insensitivity or about telling hungry people to stop eating. But it is about making a distinction between need and want, recognizing that cultures throughout history learn and adapt, generation to generation. Especially in areas where eating bats and primates continues in the absence of a deep cultural attachment to the practice, educational efforts need to reveal these disease pathways to these consumers.

A significant number of people could likely be deterred from eating high-risk species if real political will and resources were brought to bear. For those consumers of high-risk bushmeat who simply have no other dietary options, we need to redouble our development efforts, replacing dependence on wildlife with safe and nutritious alternatives suitable to the local context.

Wildlife and the pathogens they carry have been around since the dawn of time. Many recent emerging disease outbreaks correlate directly with the fact that our growing numbers continue to demand more and more from wild nature in unprecedented and increasingly risky ways.

We can try to find and unravel the life history of every virus of potential risk. But we need to alleviate poverty, improve food security, and tap into the capacity for human culture to adapt in order to mitigate some very clear and present threats to our very survival.

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