As if I’m not paranoid enough about contracting some germ-based doom from riding the subway everyday, now scientists have presented, in this week’s issue of Nature, the first map of emerging infectious disease hotspots throughout the world. And, yep, New York City seems to be in the red.
Emerging infectious diseases can be defined as either a newly discovered pathogen, or a known pathogen that has moved into a new area or region. Famous examples of exotic emerging diseases are ebola and SARS, but not all emerging diseases are new to science. Drug-resistant strains of various garden-variety pathogens (like Staphlococcus or tuberculosis) are also cropping up with increasing frequency. Often these pathogens originate in animal hosts before jumping species and tearing their way through the human population.
When researchers in the U.S. and the UK set out to map the hotspots they looked for both the exotic and the mundane. They also took into account the relative lack of monitoring and reporting of disease outbreaks in underdeveloped nations to give a clearer idea of where, and how often, diseases were making the jump from wildlife to humans. In the end, they discovered that emerging infections in developing nations tended to be novel pathogens, encountered as humans squeeze further into previously uninhabited regions and have more contact with the wildlife found there. Conversely, the emerging infections in the developed world were primarily drug-resistant pathogens, bred by widespread antibiotic use in the human and livestock populations. Additionally, the majority of the hotspots were found in the developing world. Unfortunately, most of the funding for monitoring and prevention is allocated to the developed world.
The upshot? Without better monitoring in the areas most likely to spawn a killer pathogen, the next big global threat could be floating around in airplane cabins before scientists even know it exists.
Still, I think I need to buy some more Purell.