What’s after Ebola? The Race to Stop the Next Pandemic

Sad dog

The latest worldwide Ebola outbreak caught many healthcare providers off-guard. As a practicing veterinarian accustomed to dealing with zoonotic diseases, when news of Ebola went viral (pun intended), I quickly discovered I didn’t have answers to all of my clients’ questions. Turns out I wasn’t alone as evidenced by the rush of authorities to needlessly euthanize the dog of a Spanish nurse who contracted Ebola. As the New Year began, I asked myself a simple question: What’s after Ebola? Luckily for humankind, some of the planet’s brightest minds are seeking to answer that question.   

What’s the next Ebola?
According to a 2008 study published in Nature, there were 335 “emerging infectious diseases” (EIDs) documented from 1940 to 2004. A couple of key points from this study were the fact that these outbreaks weren’t random and that the majority (60.3%) originated from wild animals. The researchers also reported that over half (54.3%) of EIDs were caused by bacteria or rickettsia, leading to increased stress on our already limited antibiotic arsenal. From a purely veterinary perspective, the zoonotic EIDs concern me most.

Who is investigating these infectious diseases?
One of the leaders in the fight against emerging infectious diseases is Peter Dasnak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance.  Dasnak is perhaps best known as the guy responsible for figuring out the wildlife origin of the SARS virus. His new goal is to identify every mammalian virus and target those posing the greatest risk to mankind. That’s a tall order, considering there are an estimated 320,000 viruses that infect mammals according to a September 2013 study published by the American Society for Microbiology. Dasnak is optimistic his team can complete the task in the next 20 years at a cost of roughly $6 billion reports Matt McCarthy of slate.com. But what about 2015?

No one knows for sure what the next global pandemic will be, but there are at least two diseases identified in McCarthy’s article that I want to put on your infectious disease radar.

First of all, my biggest fear is a viral pandemic. With viral diseases, a humble genetic mutation can create a horrific infection. Two viruses being closely monitored as possible pandemics are Nipah virus and Rift Valley fever.  

Nipah virus as the next global pandemic
Many veterinarians know Nipah virus because it originated in pigs. It was first documented between February and April of 1999 among pig farmers in Malaysia, according to the medical journal Lancet. Between September 1998 and April 1999, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there were 265 cases of Nipah virus in Malaysia and Singapore. WHO warns Nipah virus has spread to India and Bangladesh resulting in at least 263 verified cases killing 196 since 2001 for an average 74.5% fatality rate.

In Bangladesh, consumption of raw date palm sap followed by human-to-human transmission is blamed. Bats seem to be spreading the virus in the region because they are known to drink from clay pots used to collect the date palm sap. Right now the virus appears difficult to transmit human-to-human. The nightmare is if the highly lethal Nipah virus mutates into a more infectious form.

Rift Valley Fever as the next pandemic
Rift Valley fever (RVF) has been known for some time (at least 1931). I studied RVF in veterinary medical school because it is transmitted by mosquitoes and affects livestock, especially sheep. Veterinarians are at risk for infection from infected animals, so RVF has been on my radar for a long time. WHO reports that the good news is RVF kills only about 1% of humans who contract it. The bad news is that due to increased air travel, population shifts, and climate change, mosquitoes are expanding their reach. Any virus spread by mosquitoes is a concern for a potential pandemic.

While we don’t know specifically what’s next in global pandemics, we can rest easier knowing there’s never been a more unified, global initiative to combat infectious diseases. If you’d like to keep up on these issues, WHO has an excellent Global Alert and Response (GAR) website that can keep you updated on emerging infectious diseases.  

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.