Stopping Disease En Route
|These bats were confiscated at JFK Airport on their way to trade shows in the Midwest from Indonesia. They were tested for pathogens, but none were found.|
Ever since September 11th, Americans—particularly New Yorkers—know that our ports must be protected from terrorists. But most of us are unaware of another threat: the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that tag along with the animals and animal products that enter New York City every day.
Live frogs prized for their haunches and exotic pets are joined by an increasing amount of illegally shipped meat that feeds a growing hunger for international delicacies. While most animal products are harmless, some contain pathogens that can spread to customs agents, inspectors, food handlers, and to the general public. Diseases can also be passed to local birds, domestic animals, and humans via mosquitoes and other carriers. Many public health experts and environmentalists fear that, without more controls, a crisis looms.
The threat is exacerbated as the human population expands and settles in former wilderness areas and comes in contact with previously undisturbed wildlife; while global travel and commerce provide easy ways for pathogens to spread. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), originating in bats, was passed to humans through the wildlife trade—and traveled fast—arriving in Toronto from Asia in only a few days. Avian flu, West Nile virus, and the Ebola virus were also spread from animals to humans.
A grant of $100,000 is helping EcoHealth Alliance to work with regulatory authorities at JFK Airport to collect and study 500 samples of confiscated animal goods. “It is the first study to focus on how pathogens carried in animal products put New Yorkers in danger,” says Len McNally, program director for health and people with special needs at The Trust. EcoHealth Alliance will test samples for infectious diseases, develop a computer model to predict travel patterns of disease and, recommend ways to improve surveillance. Gaps in regulatory authority persist because different federal agencies have limited jurisdiction over certain types of wildlife and domesticated animals. In order to put a better plan in place, a more comprehensive mapping of the problem is necessary. “With this improved understanding, we will be better able to create policies to mitigate wildlife disease introductions and enhance support to the regulatory agencies to fill these gaps,” says Kristine M. Smith, wildlife veterinarian and the associate director of health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. “This work will also have the side benefit of curbing the illegal trade in wildlife.”
The Trust made the grant to EcoHealth Alliance with money from two funds left by scientists who wanted their charitable legacies to support biomedical research. Biochemist Carolyn Rosenstein Falk created a fund to support biochemistry and chemistry research to improve public health. Dr. William Hallock Park, a renowned researcher in the field of bacteriology at the turn of the 20th Century, worked for the New York Board of Health where, among other achievements, he diagnosed Typhoid Mary. Invested to produce both steady income and growth, these funds will support biomedical research in perpetuity.