Applying Interdisciplinary Approaches to Understanding Disease Emergence

NEW YORK – September 10, 2012

EcoHealth Alliance’s Ecological Niche Modeling Predicts Disease Outbreaks and Targets Future Surveillance Strategies 

EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that focuses on local conservation and global health issues, announces the findings in a recent peer-reviewed paper featured in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The paper entitled, “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Understanding Disease Emergence: The Past, Present, and Future Drivers of Nipah Virus Emergence,” reveals the efforts EcoHealth Alliance scientists and its partners are taking to understand the causes of emerging infectious diseases such as Nipah virus and develops methodologies to predict and prevent future disease outbreaks.  The research into emerging infectious diseases such as West Nile virus, HIV/AIDS, Nipah virus and avian influenza including other pathogens that threaten global public health, economics and biodiversity requires an understanding of disease drivers.  Such disease drivers include, but are not limited to, climate change, global trade and air travel, land-use change and population density.

EcoHealth Alliance continues to apply statistical modeling techniques to gain a better understanding of what drives disease outbreaks and how to predict and ultimately prevent them.  Models are devised using climate change, agricultural, socioeconomic, demographic, disease and public health data to forecast possible solutions to inform future ‘smart surveillance’ activities and strategies to reduce ultimate disease risk.  “Our organization continues to be on the forefront of disease discovery and risk assessment.  Using our research on both animal and human disease outbreaks from more than 50 years of data, EcoHealth Alliance is able to apply practical ecological models to better understand root causes of disease emergence and allow for preventative measures to thwart the next possible pandemic event,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, lead author on the paper and president of EcoHealth Alliance.

Nipah virus, a bat-borne virus that causes fatal neurological disease in people and livestock, is a solid example of an emerging disease where ecological niche modeling can be used to predict the disease’s future distribution.  Nipah virus was first discovered in Malaysia in 1998 after emerging on a large-scale pig farm.  Using mathematical disease modeling, EcoHealth Alliance scientists determined that the disease’s emergence was due to intensive production of pigs in a region where bats could repeatedly introduce the virus.  The scientists took this conclusion a step further and questioned what the global distribution of Nipah virus would look like in 50 years based on climate change and the impact on the habitat range of bats that carry the Nipah virus.

To reduce uncertainty in the analysis in forecasting future Nipah virus outbreaks, EcoHealth Alliance scientists created 26,000 mathematical models using different plausible climate change scenarios.  Using cutting edge statistical techniques, scientists were able to collapse all the models to ultimately produce a single output model that represented the agreement among all models. “This is a very exciting time when it comes to disease prediction and prevention for our organization.  With the type of sophisticated modeling EcoHealth Alliance employs to existing datasets we are able to chart many variables to discover future disease outbreaks. This work will help develop solutions to stop disease outbreaks before they devastate both animal and human populations as well as cause severe global economic crashes for commodities, good and services,” said Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, EcoHealth Alliance research scientist.

About EcoHealth Alliance
Building on over 40 years of groundbreaking science, EcoHealth Alliance is a global, nonprofit 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.  Using environmental and health data covering the past 60 years, EcoHealth Alliance scientists created the first-ever, global disease hotspots map that identified at-risk regions, to help predict and prevent the next pandemic crisis. That work is the foundation of EcoHealth Alliance’s rigorous, science-based approach, focused at the intersection of the environment, health, and capacity building.  Working in the U.S. and more than 20 countries worldwide, EcoHealth Alliance’s strength is founded on innovations in research, training, global partnerships, and policy initiatives.  For more information, please visit


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