I read an interesting article earlier this week that I felt was worth sharing. The article, which appeared in the Huffington Post, is entitled “7 common myths about pandemics and new diseases” written by Dr. William Karesh, executive VP for health and policy with the EcoHealth Alliance. It talks about several misconceptions a lot of people have when it comes to emerging diseases (including zoonoses) and the effects they can have at both local and global levels. Here are a few points from Dr. Karesh’s article (for more details click on the link above):

  • Pandemics and new diseases are not just a public health problem, as they can have significant effects on many sectors of the economy. It’s been estimated that the SARS outbreak in 2003 cost the global economy $30-$50 billion. Even diseases that infect only animals and not people can have a huge impact on everyone – just ask anyone who’s lived through a Foot-and-Mouth Disease outbreak.
  • There are a lot of infectious diseases out there already (i.e. they’re not necessarily "new") about which we know little to nothing. As much as we would like to think that doctors can diagnose just about anything with the right test, the ~1400 infectious pathogens that we know about are really just the start. There’s a good chance that some of those fevers, pneumonias and other vague and not-so-vague illnesses are caused (or perhaps triggered) by pathogens that we are simple unable to detect at this time. The potential for "new" pathogens to reach the human population also continues to increase as we encroach more and more on previously untouched wilderness (and the animals living there) in various parts of the world.
  • International organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) are extremely important for helping guide and coordinate infection control efforts in many countries, but they have limited resources and budgets. Furthermore, only the governments of the countries in which outbreaks occur have the ultimate authority to take action at ground zero where it’s needed most.
  • Although globalization provides means for pathogens to get from one side of the world to another in only a matter of hours (as we’ve discussed several times on this blog before), the same phenomenon can also help us respond better to emerging disease threats – samples can be relatively rapidly transported to specific labs for testing, experts in almost any part of the world can be reached quickly for consultation, and test results and recommendations can be communicated to everyone involved almost immediately.

Remember that we all have a role to play in public health, both as “global citizens, as Dr. Karesh points out, and I would add also at our own local level. Public health personnel work hard to establish policies and regulations to help prevent infectious disease outbreaks and ensure a safe food supply, and to provide people with the necessary information to make sound decisions with regard to protecting themselves from illness. In the end, public health requires action by the public. The little things we each do can add up to have a huge impact, even things as simple as washing our hands regularly, cooking food thoroughly, picking up after our pets outside, properly training pets not to bite or scratch, keeping our animals (be they large, small, common or exotic) as healthy as possible, and being aware of the disease risks associated with keeping animals and how to minimize them. Every drop in the bucket counts, no matter how small it may seem, and by having these habits and practices in place in advance, we will (hopefully) all be better prepared to deal with the next emerging disease – from wherever (or whatever) it comes.