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09 May 2005

Conference Examines Threat Emerging Diseases Pose to Ecosystem

Scientists say epidemiology, ecology critical to understanding, prevention

More than 80 scientists from around the world met May 3-5 at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies (IES) in New York to discuss emerging infectious diseases, including the Ebola virus, West Nile virus and bird flu.

Such diseases threaten human health, wildlife, livestock, agriculture and forests. Once established, infectious diseases are economic and ecological burdens that can cause irreversible damage.

The U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration helped support the three-day infectious disease ecology conference, according to a May 7 IES press release.

Understanding and preventing emerging infectious disease depends on increased dialogue among professionals on the frontlines, including ecologists, medical doctors, veterinarians and epidemiologists.

"Our planet is supporting a population of 6.5 billion, with a projected 9.1 billion in 2050,” said Dr. Karl Johnson of the Whirling Disease Foundation in Montana, a virologist and co-discoverer of the Ebola virus and hantavirus.

“As borders and ecological boundaries shrink,” he said, “the divide between theoretical ecology and applied epidemiology is also shrinking. Successfully addressing the infectious diseases of the future will require building a bridge between both sides of the disease equation -- epidemiology and ecology."

Epidemiology is a branch of medicine that deals with the study of the causes, distribution and control of disease in populations. Ecology is the science of the relationships between organisms and their environments.

A theme throughout the conference, “Infectious Disease Ecology: Effects of disease on ecosystems and of ecosystems on disease,” was the need to incorporate ecological methods into traditional epidemiological studies.

Text of the IES press release follows:

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Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Press release, May 7, 2005
[Millbrook, New York]

Employing ecology to predict and manage emerging infectious diseases

This week, over 80 distinguished scientists from around the world convened at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies (IES) to participate in a conference on infectious disease ecology. From West Nile Virus and Ebola to Sudden Oak Death, emerging infectious diseases threaten human health, wildlife, livestock, agriculture, and forests. Once established, infectious diseases are economic and ecological burdens that can cause, in some cases, irreversible damage.

Understanding, and ultimately preventing, emerging infectious disease depends on increased dialogue among professionals on the frontlines. The 3-day conference at the Institute provided a much-needed cross discipline forum for ecologists, medical doctors, veterinarians, and epidemiologists. Participant Dr. Sarah Randolph of Oxford University comments, "The conference facilitated invaluable conversation and collaboration among a diverse pool of scientists that share questions of common interest."

An underlying theme throughout the conference was the need to incorporate ecological methods into traditional epidemiological studies. Participant Dr. Andy Dobson, an ecologist at Princeton University, noted, "When trying to unravel the infectious diseases of plants and animals, the macroscope of ecologists can provide just as much information as the microscope of microbiologists, veterinarians, and physicians. Infectious diseases exist within an ecological context."

This sentiment was reinforced by one of the conference's conveners, Dr. Felicia Keesing of Bard College and IES, "Three quarters of emerging diseases – AIDS, Marburg, Avian Flu, etc. – arise in animals, and people become unwitting victims. We need to study disease dynamics in those animal populations."

Consider Lyme disease. The pathogen that transmits infection to humans is regulated by the presence of blacklegged ticks, deer populations, and the diversity of small mammals. Managing infections that have complex lifecycles -- where pathogens infect multiple host species -- requires an understanding of the ecological conditions that promote or inhibit disease. Dr. Sharon Deem, a veterinarian at the Smithsonian Institution, notes, "Incorporating ecological approaches into the infectious disease framework will strengthen our ability to respond to emerging pathogens."

Unraveling infectious diseases depends on an ability to navigate growing ecological complexity.

Over the past several centuries, the progression of human society has ushered in unprecedented environmental changes. From large-scale land modification to the global movement of people, animals, plants and microbes -- very few ecosystems can be considered remote or pristine.

Dr. Karl Johnson of the Whirling Disease Foundation, a virologist and co-discoverer of Ebola and Hantavirus, comments, "Our planet is supporting a population of 6.5 billion, with a projected 9.1 billion in 2050. As borders and ecological boundaries shrink, the divide between theoretical ecology and applied epidemiology is also shrinking. Successfully addressing the infectious diseases of the future will require building a bridge between both sides of the disease equation -- epidemiology and ecology."

The dialogue fostered by the conference gave rise to a number of exciting new education and research agendas. These included hiring ecologists in schools of public health, sharing disease ecology findings with health and veterinarian practitioners, developing interdisciplinary graduate programs to train the next generation of medical and ecological professionals, and holding future cross-discipline conferences. Conference proceedings will be published in a book, Infectious Disease Ecology, available in 2006.

Funding for the conference was made possible through support from the National Science Foundation, Dutchess Country, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Institute of Ecosystems Studies. Drs. Richard Ostfeld, Valerie Eviner and Felicia Keesing (Bard College, IES) convened the conference.

Dutchess County Executive William R. Steinhaus expressed, "Dutchess County recognizes the importance of understanding infectious disease ecology, both globally and locally. We are pleased to support the Institute of Ecosystems Studies' efforts in promoting a broader awareness of the role that ecology plays informing the management and prevention of infectious disease."

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