Expecting the unexpected: how Canada is helping to prevent the next disease outbreak

by Craig Stephen and Zee Leung

OTTAWA, Aug. 27 2014 /CNW Telbec/ - Infectious diseases know no borders, whether it's Ebola spreading from Guinea to Liberia, measles in the Fraser Valley brought to Canada from the Philippines, or MERS claiming victims across the Middle East. These health crises are grim reminders that new and old infectious diseases often strike where and when we least expect them, in ways that confound us.

But given unprecedented environmental change, intensifying global trade, and increasingly mobile and growing populations, we should expect the unexpected.

SARS, West Nile Virus, and H1N1 are recent examples of deadly diseases that travelled to reach our shores. They are also early reminders that new diseases will likely continue to emerge at the messy interface between people, animals, and the environment.

Experts say the current Ebola crisis was sparked by bushmeat, bat migration, and deforestation. Border crossings in West Africa are closed as the death toll grows steadily higher. Even medical staff are at risk from the virus, which have infected a number of them, and claiming the lives of some. So what can we do in the face of inevitable and devastating disease outbreaks?

The global response has been to assume we live in a predictable world; if we develop the right test or prescribe the right drug, we can stop the next big disease outbreak in its tracks. But nature can be unpredictable. Our poor record of forecasting the next outbreak is a testament to this. And as we are seeing with Ebola, effective diagnostics and medical treatment can be powerless against community mistrust, historical tensions, and local funeral customs.

To protect ourselves against the next outbreak looming on the horizon, not only do we need emergency responses that work closely with communities, we also need to invest in healthy ecosystems and strong communities: clean and safe environments; nutritious and accessible sources of food; health education; basic sanitation; effective healthcare systems; and strong infection control. These are just some of the measures that can help populations build up resilience for an uncertain future.

Canada is making a unique contribution to this goal. Our country is a leading supporter of innovative research where scientists work hand in hand with communities to improve the ways that we respond to and prevent dangerous diseases like Ebola.  This August, Montreal hosted the 5th Biennial Conference of the International Association for Ecology and Health. Five-hundred delegates from 62 countries took part. Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) was a proud co-sponsor of the event, drawing on its long history of building partnerships between Canadian and international scientists, governments, and communities to make people and animals less vulnerable to disease.

For example, in Tunisia, climate change and water shortages have contributed to outbreaks of cutaneous leishmaniasis - a severe, disfiguring infection spread through rodents and sandflies. Researchers supported by IDRC worked with farmers to rethink irrigation practices and reduce exposure to the disease.

In 2011 IDRC helped scientists, health officials, schools, and community leaders in Thailand fight a liver cancer-causing parasite spread through food and poor sanitation. The resulting strategy combined drug treatment with health education to improve hygiene and food safety practices, cutting the infection rate in half in just 2 years.

Other Canadian initiatives are taking a similar approach to diseases threatening wildlife. The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative is working with provincial, national, and US partners to tackle White Nose syndrome in bats, safeguarding their importance to farmers as effective pest-control agents and supporting healthy ecosystems.

While we can't predict the next new disease, we can take steps to prevent its devastating impact: invest in local health knowledge and infrastructure, improve understanding and trust in disease prevention and control measures before crises occur, help communities secure clean and safe sources of food and water, and create healthy and functional environments for people and animals.

Craig Stephen is the Executive Director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC). Zee Leung is a Program Officer in Canada's International Development Research Centre's ecohealth program.

SOURCE International Development Research Centre

For further information: Marianne Goodwin, Senior Media and Public Affairs Advisor , Communications Division, International Development Research Centre, +1 613 696-2343, mgoodwin@idrc.ca