The Truth About Zoonotic Disease

In our line of work, we come across a lot of troubling statistics. We’re seeing previously unheard-of rates of new and emerging disease emergence. About 75 percent of new and emerging diseases are zoonotic, meaning they’re passed to humans through animals. At present, we’re aware of only 263 of the estimated 631,000-827,000 viruses which can infect humans.

But there is a simple fact behind those statistics, one that gives us hope. Zoonotic disease emergence is driven almost entirely by human behavior and, because of that, we hold the key to our own safety in our own hands.

Wild animals are not bioterrorists. They do not seek to spread disease. But we are coming into increased contact with wildlife through avenues like urban sprawl, industrialized farming, and the wildlife trade.

A better understanding of these pathways for disease emergence is the best way to protect ourselves. Much of our work at EcoHealth Alliance is focused on that very objective; it’s here where the work of our multidisciplinary teams converges.

We have data scientists harnessing the power of technology to create tools which can better predict where and how pathogens are likely to spread through travel and trade. We have epidemiologists studying the pathogens themselves: learning where they are, how they behave, and the conditions that allow them to spread into humans. Our behavioral scientists are conducting research into what actions put people most at risk, then developing tools to replace risky behaviors with alternatives. On the policy side, we have experts advising on all levels to ensure our leaders understand the ways conservation and human health are linked: that a healthy planet equals healthy people.

Odds are, you only hear or think about us in the worst of times. When an outbreak threatens to become a pandemic or when a relatively unknown virus makes the jump into people in a new location. But we are working in nearly 30 countries around the globe around the clock, in sickness and in health.

On its face, it may sound scary to hear that zoonotic diseases are emerging in human populations at never-before-seen rates. But this puts the power in our hands, because if it’s us who are causing disease outbreaks, then it is us who can put a stop to them.