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Global Report Identifies Emerging Infectious Diseases

Experts say they have a major new tool in the battle against potentially deadly disease pandemics. A new report has identified "hotspots" around the globe where new infectious diseases are most likely to erupt. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

AIDS became a deadly worldwide pandemic years before scientists learned it was caused by a mutated virus that had jumped the species barrier from monkeys to humans in Africa.

Similarly, severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS, West Nile virus, Ebola, and H5N1 avian influenza had animal, or zoonotic, origins in different parts of the world, causing severe illness and death in humans before public health officials identified the sources of the diseases and took measures to contain them.

But experts say they now have a major new tool to help them prevent pandemics by predicting where potentially lethal infectious diseases are likely to erupt and snuffing them out before they catch fire.

An international team of researchers published in the journal Nature the first global disease "hotspots" map based on population density, latitude, rainfall and wildlife biodiversity.

Using a complex computer model, scientists led by Kate Jones of the Zoology Society of London investigated how these factors contributed to the emergence of 335 diseases over the past 64 years.

Investigators determined that more diseases emerged during the 1980's than in any other decade. Approximately half of the emerging diseases originated in the developing world and the other half in the Western world.

The report found the developed world was the "hotspot" for most diseases resulting from antibiotic resistance.

As yet, Jones says the new model does not predict any emerging diseases. "To make it predictive, we need to have other information about the future. So, we can use different models of future change. So, for example, we could do climate change as well," he said.

According to the authors, animals were the source of 60 percent of the new diseases in humans that they studied. Of these, 70 percent came from wild animals. They say the next animal-borne disease is likely to originate in the tropics.

Jones says animal viruses jumped the species barrier to humans because they encroached on wildlife habitats and we're paying the price. "There is a cost for growing and using the environment and changing the ecologies of our surroundings, and that from our study here is that we're increasing the likelihood of getting an emerging infectious disease," he said.

The authors of the study say tropical countries are a likely source of the next major zoonotic disease outbreak because of the abundance of wildlife and increasing pressures on animal habitats.

They say more resources should be redirected away from richer countries to "hotspot" areas where infectious diseases are most likely to emerge.