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Global trends in emerging viral diseases of wildlife origin

April 10, 2015

Fifty years ago, infectious diseases were rarely considered threats to wildlife populations, and the study of wildlife diseases was largely a neglected endeavor. Furthermore, public health leaders at that time had declared that “it is time to close the book on infectious diseases and the war against pestilence won,” a quote attributed to Dr. William H. Stewart in 1967. There is some debate whether he actually said these words; however, they reflect the widespread belief at that time (Spellberg, 2008). Leap forward to today, and the book on infectious diseases has been dusted off. There is general consensus that the global environment favors the emergence of infectious diseases, and in particular, diseases of wildlife origin (Taylor et al., 2001). Examples of drivers of these infectious diseases include climate and landscape changes, human demographic and behavior changes, global travel and trade, microbial adaptation, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for wildlife disease control and prevention (Daszak et al., 2001). The consequences of these emerging diseases are global and profound with increased burden on the public health system, negative impacts on the global economy and food security, declines and extinctions of wildlife species, and subsequent loss of ecosystem integrity. For example, 35 million people are currently living with HIV infection globally (; 400 million poultry have been culled since 2003 as a result of efforts to control highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza (, and there are increasing biological and ecological consequences.

Examples of health threats to biodiversity include the “spillover” of human diseases to great ape populations (Köndgen et al., 2008), the near-extirpation of the black-footed ferret from canine distemper and sylvatic plague (for a review see Abbott et al., 2012), and threats to Hawaiian forest birds from introduced pathogens such as avian malaria and avian pox (van Riper et al., 1986, 2002). There are also newly discovered pathogens or diseases that have resulted in population declines, and global extinctions of several species. Examples include Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which causes a cutaneous fungal infection of amphibians and is linked to declines of amphibians globally (Kriger and Hero, 2009); and recently discovered Pseudogymnoascus (Geomyces) destructans, the etiologic agent of white-nose syndrome (WNS), which has caused precipitous declines of North American bat species (Blehert et al., 2009). Furthermore, there is increasing evidence of the subsequent impacts on human and ecosystem health; for example, increasing risk of exposure to Lyme disease as a consequence of decreased biodiversity (LoGiudice et al., 2003) as well as the economic cost of the loss of bats due to decreased insect control services (Boyles et al., 2011). Figure A12-1 is a timeline of important diseases investigated by the U.S. Geological Survey since the 1970s, which illustrates three factors:

1. The unprecedented emergence of new pathogens and geographic spread of known pathogens since the 1990s;

2. Diseases are increasingly causing large-scale, negative impacts on wildlife populations and spreading over larger geographic areas rather than remaining localized; and

3. Diseases are increasingly of concern for multiple sectors, including public health, agriculture and wildlife management agencies.

Of increasing concern are these novel diseases such as WNS as they are hard to anticipate, particularly devastating to human health or wildlife populations, challenging to manage, spread over large geographic areas in short time periods, and may result in ecological ripple effects that are difficult to predict.

The following article provides examples of recently emerged viral diseases of wildlife origin. The examples have been selected to illustrate the drivers of emerging viral diseases, both novel pathogens and previously known diseases, the impacts of these diseases, as well as the role of wildlife both as “villains” or reservoirs as well as “victims” of these viral diseases. The article also discusses potential management strategies for emerging viral diseases in wildlife populations and future science directions in wildlife health to prevent, prepare, respond to, and recover from these disease events. Finally, the concept of One Health and its potential role in developing solutions to these issues of mutual concern is discussed.