Cross-Species Diseases Eyed

Civet cat and SARS
Medical and veterinary experts gathered in Geneva Monday to discuss how to identify and prevent the spread of diseases like SARS, bird flu and mad cow disease from animals to humans.

The three-day meeting called by the World Health Organization will look at the challenges involved in predicting the next "zoonoses," or diseases that can breach the species barrier, and how to monitor them.

"Identifying the next zoonotic disease of international public health importance will not be easy," said Dr. Francois Meslin, WHO's coordinator for zoonoses control.

"We hope that the consultation will provide new tools that may make this possible in the near future."

The meeting is being held jointly with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health and will include international experts in public health, veterinary science, microbiology, conservation biology, disease modeling and forecasting.

Scientists suspect that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that killed at least 774 people in 2002-2003 was passed to humans from civet cats and other mongoose-like animals that are sold in live food markets in southern China. Avian flu originated in chickens, while there is scientific evidence that consuming meat from cattle infected with BSE, or mad cow disease, can lead to a fatal brain disease in humans.

The transmission of disease from animals to people depends on many factors, including the interactions between animals and humans, the microbial agent involved and the environment. Ecological changes caused by human activity are by far the most important factor, WHO said.

Many of the measures needed to contain such diseases fall outside the work of WHO and must be taken by agricultural and environmental authorities, the agency stressed.

"As recent outbreaks have demonstrated, intersectoral and interdisciplinary cooperation is crucial to ensuring that international public health is not compromised," Meslin said.