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Diseases From Animals -- What's Next?

As experts are learning, the list of infectious diseases borne from animals is by no means complete.

Learning From Experience

Anthrax attacks and SARS outbreaks have made us warier if not wiser, says George A. Pankey, MD, director of infectious diseases research at Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans.

"I think the surveillance is better now as a result of the bioterror threat," Pankey tells WebMD. "Local labs and a lot of infectious disease doctors are attuned to unusual things happening. And I think public health services around country are very aware.... In general we are a lot better off then we were 20 years ago."

That's true -- but more must be done, says Lawrence T. Glickman, VMD, DrPH, professor of veterinary epidemiology and environmental health at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine.

"Our ability to diagnose viruses is better now," Glickman notes. "But I think we need better reporting systems for both people and animals. I think both sides are working on that. Unfortunately we don't have a CDC for animals, so a lot of what happens in pets -- especially exotic pets -- is unknown."

Watching the Animals

If new diseases come from animals, it's a good idea to keep an eye on them. That's exactly what Glickman is doing. In collaboration with the CDC and the nation's largest chain of pet hospitals, he and his colleagues are amassing a huge database on cat and dog health.

It's called the VMD-SOS: Veterinary Medical Data-Surveillance of Syndromes. Data comes from the 60,000 dogs and cats seen weekly at Banfield Pet Hospitals' 300 veterinary facilities in 43 states.

"Every night that information is processed, and with the right programming we could be alerted to a disease outbreak in cats or dogs," Glickman says. "Human health surveillance systems are more regional and less standardized. Our system may let us give public health officials their first warning of an outbreak."

Other systems already are in place. The USDA is keeping track of West Nile virus in birds. The CDC is upgrading its national laboratory network. And the World Health Organization -- taking stock of what it learned from the SARS outbreak -- is taking a much more active role in responding to disease outbreaks.

Back to From Animals to Humans: Tracing the Path of Infectious Disease.

Published July 8, 2003.

Reviewed on July 08, 2003

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