I admit, I’m a full fledge junkie when it comes to epidemiology. Epidemiology studies the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions by identifying risk factors for disease. It’s like studying puzzles - and for someone who loves nothing better than finding the optimal way to pack a trunk with all the junk you pack for a vacation, trying to find out the what’s, where’s and why’s of a latest disease outbreak is fascinating.
Take the MERS-CoV outbreak for example, first identified in April 2012 the epidemic has spread to many countries in the Middle East and while it has spread to other countries, all cases have been directly linked back to the Middle East prior to being “exported” via travel. The WHO calls the latest outbreak in South Korea a “wake up call”. The outbreak is centered on a single man who visited four (4) hospitals for his illness until it was identified as MERS. There are currently >160 confirmed cases, just over 20 deaths attributed to the outbreak and over >6000 people in quarantine.
Researchers are working valiantly to uncover what the animal reservoir is and exactly what the mode of transmission for MERS-CoV is. It was interesting to then read a study by researchers from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and the Odum School of Ecology looking at Rodent reservoirs as future zoonotic diseases. The researchers have concluded that Kansas and Nebraska may join China, Kazakhstan and parts of the Middle East as hotspots for future novel zoonotic disease. Similar to the MERS-CoV situation, emerging infectious diseases are generally dealt with reactively focusing efforts on containing the outbreak. Once contained, researchers then turn to investigating how it started in the first place. The researchers of this study are taking a different approach; they are interested in developing an algorithm that could inform early warning surveillance by revealing the distribution of rodent species that are effective disease reservoirs.
Models were developed that considered 86 variables to predict which of the 2277 existing rodent species could serve as zoonotic disease carriers in the future and where they are likely to spread these diseases. In the end they were able to predict zoonotic reservoir status with 90% certainty and identified over 50 potentially new zoonotic reservoir species and concluded that hotspots for novel rodent reservoirs would like span the globe in areas with significant mammal diversity, middle-income or better economies and with climates that span from arctic to tropical. One of these predicted hotspots was the Midwestern United States.
With traditional focus being on containment after a deadly outbreak occurs, the ability to predict when and where the next zoonotic disease may arrive from is certainly interesting. Perhaps now we are closer to a future where we can turn predictions into preventative measures, starting with a focus on areas where rodent populations have increasing interactions through urbanization and agriculture!
Perhaps, this is the answer to getting my cousins from Kansas to move to Canada?