By Cathleen O’Grady
EcoHealth Alliance’s science-based approach to conservation is multi-faceted, ranging from working against the illegal wildlife trade and promoting species preservation, to research into infectious disease pandemics. Their work in conservation medicine draws together human illnesses and ecological disruption, studying and fighting both simultaneously.
With scientists clamoring to understand the recent emergence of Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), which has killed 40 of the 77 people it has infected and appears to have originated in bats, the work of EcoHealth Alliance in understanding the connection between animal conservation and human disease is becoming ever more critical.
Animal health is critical to human health, says Dr. Jon Epstein, an EcoHealth Alliance wildlife veterinarian, and the more wild animals come into contact with humans, the more likely it is that disease will be transferred. Bats, for example, carry a significant disease risk for humans: While numerous factors, including deforestation and hunting, are causing bat populations to decline, human population growth and land use are in some ways bringing bats and humans closer together, which allows for diseases to be transferred much more easily.
Introducing greater separation between bats and humans is therefore vital to reduce disease transfer, but also helpful in reducing human impact on bats. Bat conservation is essential for other reasons, too, notes EcoHealth Alliance’s vice president for health and policy, William Karesh: Bats provide a vital contribution to North American agriculture in the form of pest control, as well as pollination.
On a wider scale, approximately five new infectious diseases emerge every year, and roughly a billion people are infected with a zoonotic disease (originating from non-human animals) every year, according to Karesh. The problem desperately needs expertise from animal science and ecology to work alongside human health experts, he explains.
EcoHealth Alliance runs numerous programs attempting to address this issue. Its health and policy initiatives involve collaborations with local, national, and intergovernmental agencies and organizations to translate its ecosystem health science into actionable information and policy, while information-gathering projects such as the Sicki Project use global data to track the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases. The Bat Conservation and Health program works toward protecting bats from extinction caused by habitat destruction, while also studying the diseases caused by human encroachment into bat habitats.