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OneHealth Research on bat zoonoses in Australia and Africa

Bat Zoonoses in Australia

In 2017, The US National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.65 million grant to an international group of researchers to study how human behavior contributes to the spread of emerging infectious diseases. Led by Dr Raina Plowright (Montana State University) with Dr Olivier Restif (University of Cambridge) and researchers from three continents, the multidisciplinary consortium involves 10 academic institutions and a nonprofit agency. The project focuses eastern Australia, where there has been an influx of fruit bats into towns and cities, while Hendra virus has been spilling over from fruit bats into horses and people for nearly 20 years.

Dr Restif, who is the Alborada Lecturer in epidemiology at the Department of Veterinary Medicine, will lead effort into the mathematical modelling of this complex ecological system, to understand how bat-human conflicts over land use shape the risk of zoonotic virus spillover. "Importantly, the goal of the project is to deliver effective, evidence-based policies that will protect both public health and bat conservation," said Dr Restif. "All around the world, bats provide vital functions for ecosystems, but they are increasingly threatened by the degradation of their natural habitat. This in turn leads to greater risk of spillover of zoonotic viruses from bats to domestic animals and people, as bats are forced to reside closer to urban areas."

“Periodic food shortages, combined with the deforestation of winter habitat of fruit bats, has sent the flying mammals into towns and cities looking for food,” said Dr Plowright. Hendra virus can cause death in horses within days to weeks of initial contact, and bring about flu-like or neurological symptoms in humans that is usually fatal. “There is a Hendra virus vaccine for horses that is highly effective, yet it’s not being widely used,” Plowright said. “There is very poor uptake of vaccinating horses. For some horse owners this is due to lack of awareness about the risks of Hendra virus, and for others it is because of an anti-vaccination movement.”

Dr Restif added "this is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate the value of a One Health approach to tackle a complex and urgent problem. Epidemiologists, veterinarians, ecologists, social anthropologists and conservation NGOs will for the first time work hand in hand to develop sustainable solutions to the Hendra virus threat. These solutions have to be not only backed by science, they also have to be feasible and supported by policymakers and affected communities."

NSF award details:

Bat Zoonoses in Ghana

In 2015, Cambridge Infectious Diseases became a key partner in an innovative, multidisciplinary £3.2m research consortium exploring the connections between ecosystems, health and poverty in Africa.

CID partners in holistic research to tackle zoonoses in Africa

The Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium involves James Wood, Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science at Cambridge University, working with other natural scientists as well as a range of social scientists, including anthropologists, economists and geographers, in a unique integrated approach to understanding zoonoses – those diseases which pass from animals to humans.

More than 60% of emerging infectious diseases over the past few decades have been zoonotic. While some quietly devastate poor people’s lives and their livelihoods, others have the potential to create dangerous global threats. However, diseases that affect poor people, including zoonoses, are often under-measured and therefore under-prioritised by those who determine national and international health systems.

The Drivers of Disease programme will, through fieldwork and modelling work, generate vital new knowledge on the impacts on zoonotic disease of ecosystem change such as climate change and habitat loss, ecology, and the interactions between humans and animals. This will provide the evidence base for informed and integrated ‘One Health’ approaches to disease control. The aim is to draw out new opportunities for policy, institutions and interventions to help people move out of poverty in Africa as well as other areas of the world.

The programme engages with Professor Wood’s major current focus, studying the emergence of RNA virus infections from bats and how they might spread to domestic animals and humans, particularly in West Africa. He will be working closely with the programme’s team in Ghana considering the potential spillover, from bats to people, of the henipavirus.

Drivers of Disease is also considering the Lassa fever virus in Sierra Leone, the Rift Valley fever virus in Kenya and trypanosomiases in Zambia and Zimbabwe. It will consider how each of these four zoonotic diseases are affected in different ways by ecosystem changes and have different impacts on people’s health, wellbeing and livelihood.

The Consortium, which comprises 19 partners in all, is funded by Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) for three and a half years. Other partners are as follows: in the UK, the ESRC STEPS Centre, Institute of Zoology, University of Edinburgh and University College London; in Ghana, Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission and University of Ghana; in Kenya, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), the University of Nairobi and the Department of Veterinary Services; in Sierra Leone, Kenema Government Hospital and Njala University; in Zambia, the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries and the University of Zambia; in Zimbabwe, the Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Zimbabwe. The Stockholm Resilience Centre and Tulane University, US, are also partners.

ESPA is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).