EcoHealth Alliance Scientists Respond To Contagion’s Message

NEW YORK – September 10, 2011

EcoHealth Alliance, now in its 40th year of operation, is a science-based nonprofit organization working on predicting and preventing the next pandemic. The new film, Contagion, highlights the outbreak of a new disease that quickly traverses the globe causing illness and death to those infected.  EcoHealth Alliance scientists respond to this scenario based upon a decade of research identifying emerging disease ‘hot spots’ and preventing the factors that precipitate a pandemic.  Contagion focuses on an imaginary virus called MEV-1 that emerged from bats when deforestation and intensive pig farming disturbed their Southeast Asian ecosystem.  “The disease in the film is modeled directly on a virus, called Nipah virus that we’ve worked on for over a decade,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, President and Disease Ecologist at EcoHealth Alliance. “We’ve shown how this virus moves from bats, to pigs, and people, allowing us to work out how we can stop it becoming a pandemic. We’re now applying the same science to this virus in Bangladesh, where it’s killing over 70% of the people it infects,” he commented.  Bats are not the culprits but in fact human-induced changes to ecosystems, such as deforestation and intensive farming are behind the rise in disease.  “Bats should not be blamed, it’s the way that we alter our environment around the world that causes pandemic viruses to emerge.  We are making ourselves sick by destroying the environment,” stated Daszak.

EcoHealth Alliance is now embarked on a global program called PREDICT, funded through the USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats initiative.  In PREDICT our scientists map the regions where new pandemics first move between wildlife and people (disease ‘hotspots’).  EcoHealth Alliance teams of wildlife veterinarians, ecologists, virologists, and field technicians work in these hotspots, including the region pictured in Contagion, and look for new pathogens that could become the next pandemic.  While the film does show the chain of events leading to the virus’s emergence and realistically portrays the challenges faced by public health scientists grappling with the pandemic, what the film doesn’t show are the scientists studying wildlife-human and wildlife-livestock interactions.  “We are working in emerging disease hotspots to examine how people and wildlife are exchanging viruses like Nipah virus” said Dr. Jon Epstein, a veterinarian and wildlife epidemiologist who studies bat-borne zoonotic viruses including Nipah virus, SARS, and Ebola virus. “The human-animal interface is where pandemics begin, and this is where we’re working to prevent outbreaks from happening in the first place”, he added.

At the film’s ending, a final scene portrays the origin of the Contagion virus.  In the jungles of Southeast Asia, the film shows construction teams ripping up the pristine forest to build expansive pig farms.  Bats fly out from this devastation, carrying the virus with them in a process that mimics exactly what happened with Nipah virus in the late 1990s.  The key message here that may be missed by some movie-goers, is that it’s not the wildlife causing these disease outbreaks – rather it’s our own destruction of the environment – ultimately, we are to blame.

About EcoHealth Alliance
Building on 40 years of innovative science, EcoHealth Alliance is a non-profit international conservation and health organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and safeguarding human health from the emergence of disease. The organization develops ways to combat the effects of damaged ecosystems on human and wildlife health through capacity building and predictive modeling. Our team specializes in saving biodiversity in human-dominated ecosystems where ecological health is most at risk from habitat loss, species imbalance, pollution and other environmental issues. EcoHealth Alliance scientists also identify and examine the causes affecting the health of global ecosystems in the U.S. and more than 20 countries worldwide. EcoHealth Alliance’s strength is founded on innovations in research, education, training, and support from a global network of EcoHealth Alliance conservation partners. For more information please visit