Next week, I’m going to talk about the role of livestock, wildlife, and the environment in emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) of humans. This week, I want to talk more generally about emerging infectious diseases.
Let’s start with the most straightforward part: “infectious.” EIDs are caused by some kind of transmissible pathogen. Therefore, heart disease and obesity are not EIDs, even though there are major epidemics of these diseases in some countries. (As a side note, there are some cool papers that relate the spread of non-infectious diseases, like obesity, through social networks to the spread of memes.) And “disease” means that there is pathology or fitness decreases experienced by the hosts as the result of a pathogen.
There are two ways that infectious diseases can be “emergent.” First, an emerging pathogen can be novel to a naïve or highly susceptible host population, meaning that it never existed in that population or species before. For instance, the newest emerging fungal pathogen of salamanders in Europe (Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans) exists in populations of relatively resistant salamanders in Asia, but has not previously existed in European salamanders (Martel et al. 2014). B. salamandrivorans was likely introduced into Europe via the pet trade, and European salamanders are highly susceptible to the pathogen.
Pathogens can also be considered emergent when they have existed in a population previously (i.e., endemic pathogens), but the pathogens weren’t noticed by humans until recently and/or infection rates or mortality rates recently increased due to some change in ecological or environmental conditions (e.g., changing amounts of forest fragmentation and the re-emergence of Lyme disease). Next week, I’ll go into much more detail about how disease emergence depends on ecological and environmental conditions.
Finally, why should we care if a pathogen causing an EID is novel to the focal host population or endemic to the population? Because the control measures that we use will depend on whether the pathogen is novel or endemic. For instance, targeting the trade of salamanders originating in Asia appears to be the best option to stop the spread of B. salamandrivorans, and that would not be the case if B. salamandrivorans were endemic to salamanders all over the world.
Martel, A., et al. 2014. Recent introduction of a chytrid fungus endangers Western Palearctic salamanders. Science 346(6209): 630-631.