Anthropologists Call for Improved Global Response to Animal-Borne Infectious Diseases

A report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council has called attention to significant reporting weaknesses that "undermine the global community's abilities to prevent, detect and respond efficiently to potentially deadly species-crossing microbes, such as the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus sweeping the globe."

University of Arizona Regents' Professor Mark Nichter was part of a 17-member panel of international experts formed in 2008 to assess the issue and make policy recommendations. Nichter was the only social scientist on the panel.

"This report is at once timely and groundbreaking," said Nichter, who is a professor of anthropology and family and community medicine. "It calls for a multidisciplinary approach to zoonotic disease surveillance that recognizes the need for early identification of emerging diseases in animals and man, political-ecological, environmental, and behavioral factors which contribute to disease transmission, social factors that influence human response to disease presence and risk, and biopolitical factors that influence how and when emerging disease threats are reported and acted upon by national and global bodies charged with biosecurity," he said.

Zoonotic diseases refer to infectious agents that can be transmitted between, or are shared by, animals and humans. Nichter said emerging zoonotic diseases are defined as those caused by new or previously unknown agents that appear in places or in species in which the disease was unknown. Zoonotic pathogens have caused more than 65 percent of emerging infectious disease events since 1950.

The report's authors estimated that zoonotic pathogens have been responsible for more than $200 billion in economic losses in just the past two decades.

Nichter and his colleagues on the panel encouraged U.S. federal agencies – and in particular the U.S Agency for International Development – to provide the funding and technical expertise to spearhead an international effort to develop a multidisciplinary approach to zoonotic disease surveillance.

Solving the problem on a global scale requires international cooperation and transparency – a "tall order," according to committee co-chair Gerald T. Keusch, an associate dean at the School of Public Health at Boston University, who noted that lack of resources and political will have exacerbated previous outbreaks.

The study was sponsored by USAID. The National Academies' Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter.

Copies of "Sustaining Global Surveillance and Response to Emerging Zoonotic Diseases" are available from the National Academies Press.