Scientists working at physical containment level four (PC4), the highest level available.

Scientists working at physical containment level four (PC4), the highest level available.

A sick future: the risk of new and emerging disease

More than 600 international experts in human, animal and environmental health met in Melbourne recently to discuss disease risks and challenges brought about by the interactions between animals, humans and the environment.

  • 4 March 2011

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Read more about Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL).


Interviewer:  G’day, and welcome to CSIROPod. I’m Glen Paul. Hundreds of Scientists from across the globe recently gathered in Melbourne for what was described as the first International One Health Congress on Human Health, Animal Health, the Environment, and Global Survival.

The goal of the Congress was to review current disease knowledge, and provide information needed to more effectively manage the emerging infectious disease risks at national, regional, and global levels.

CSIRO’s Dr Martyn Jeggo from the Australian Animal Health Laboratory presented at the Conference, and joins me on the line.

Martyn, we did discuss this in an earlier Podcast just prior to the Congress, so on reflection how close do you feel did it come to achieving its goal?

Dr Jeggo: I think important to remember there were two goals which we’d set out to try and achieve. We wanted to understand the current state of science, and how that might affect policy and organisation. But equally we wanted to get those organisations to talk to each other who are involved in policy setting and management of these risks. 

And so those two aims – it wasn’t just a case of where is the science, it’s a case of what can that science do to develop real change in outcome to the risk environment? 

OK, I think from everybody’s perspective it was a huge success. It certainly brought the science together, and the fascinating thing is brought those three different disciplines, the Ecologist, the Environmentalist, the Veterinarians, the animal health specialist, and the medical people, together in one place. And they really did share their science. In fact it was difficult to prise them apart, so intense was the discussion at times.

But they certainly learnt from each other, and started to see their science in a slightly different perspective. But equally important, it brought together some very senior policy managers from across the world, not just in Australia, although we did get senior representation from the Commonwealth and State Governments. But it also brought together the major U.N. organisations that are responsible for managing the risk from infectious disease. And many of them of course have been focussed in the last four or five years on the risk from Avian Influenza, and the human pandemic risk.

But they were able to listen to the Scientists and learn from them about where the science was going. And they were also able to bring their perspective of, what can we do with policy and organisation to better manage those risks?

So it certainly did, from my perspective, achieve those outcomes of bringing the Scientists and the managers of the risk into one place to share how do we best deal with all of this?

Interviewer: OK. Now you say there were a lot of different people from a lot of different fields, all together in the one place at the one time. Were there any disagreements though?  I mean we’re not talking fists flying here, but were there any areas that people didn’t quite see eye to eye on?

Dr Jeggo: [Laughter]. Of course there always are. One of them of course is the usual perennial issue of resource allocation, and if I can just take you back for a second and share with you that we see now what emerged from the Conference was a very, very real pathway where these viruses emerge from wildlife, they enter the domestic animal, and they then infect humans.  And there were plenty of really good examples of that.

So if you’re going to tackle it, you’ve got to tackle it at all levels, but you’ve particularly got to attack it at the level of wildlife, because that’s where many of these infections originate.

While one of the questions that was asked, on many occasions was from those wildlife people saying you have not given us enough resources – until you give us resources, until you help us, we will not be able to resolve these problems for you. We’ve been starved of resources for many years. And that was a question that was quite vehemently discussed and argued, and was an important one to try and resolve.

There was also the organisational issues of human health versus animal health, and to a lesser extent versus wildlife, and who’s responsible in which area, and can we now start to see more partnerships in those responsibility, and how that often can’t work because of the Government structures put in place that prevent those cross linkages.

Interviewer: And was there in amongst the discussion a particular crossover disease, or a scenario that really stood out as being one that was the most feared among Delegates?

Dr Jeggo: There was a film shown on one evening of Kuru and that was the precursor to mad cow disease, or BSE that you’re more familiar with – a really interesting film. Anybody who wants to see a film that talks about how something emerges from wildlife into animals, and then to humans, Kuru is a film worth watching. It was shown on Australian television a few weeks ago, but certainly it’s something if you ever get the chance its worth watching. And that was a real standout in terms of illustrating what the risks are, and what you have to do to manage those risks. 

But we did keep coming back to the fact that influenza as an infection, and particularly the infections in birds, has not gone away, and that the risk is still there. And at the moment there is no evidence that it’s about to emerge, but it’s still there, there are still each year these waves of infections from different influenza viruses, and the risk of a global pandemic is quite clearly there. So the influenza stories are still there.

The other one that emerged is the one from the hemorrhagic fevers, and many of you have heard of Ebola – that’s a virus that traditionally is circulated in Africa, and when it does occur as outbreaks causes a high level of mortality, and a very grim death.  And it’s clear that those viruses are still around. They could represent an explosive outbreak if they were to spread from Africa to elsewhere. And there’s some indications that may be occurring.

Interviewer: And I think we can all appreciate why that is of concern. But what of climate change? To what length was that discussed as an influence on the emergence of new diseases?

Dr Jeggo: Well of course that is very topical in the Australian context, and only this week many of you may be aware that Victoria issued warnings of one of these types of infectious diseases, Murray Valley Encephalitis, which is considered a risk now because of the increased water around due to the rains, and the increased numbers of mosquitoes that transmit that particular disease. 

So climate change was certainly seen as a driver towards increasing the risk from infectious diseases and particularly those infectious diseases that are transmitted by biting insects, so Arthropod-borne viruses is how we term those. So the risk was discussed in the context of rains, but it was also seen that climate change is going to drive other changes beyond just more water, and we’re going to see changes in vegetation, changes in food resources for livestock where things can grow where they couldn’t grow before, or vice versa.

And so it’s seen that climate change is likely to change the pattern of the occurrence of infectious diseases quite dramatically in the coming years. We’re at the beginning of that story, and it’s quite difficult to put a real risk assessment on that. But it’s quite clear that climate change will have a profound effect on infectious diseases in the many years to come.

Interviewer: Right. So just on the back of that, and then as you mentioned earlier Ebola moving around, what of responding then to a deadly outbreak? Were there any new measures discussed, or put in place for a streamlined approach?

Dr Jeggo: Well I think two things emerged that are really important here. One is the need to get the Scientists working together more effectively, so that’s the animal health guys, the human health guys, and the ecologists. And in fact surprising, that is beginning to happen, and the silos are breaking down there. But it’s seen that that needs to happen more quickly, and so there’s a proposal to establish an International Society for One Health, which will enable Scientists to come together more regularly, and provide them with a Scientific Journal in which to publish. That’s one very strong initiative.

The other side of the coin is how Governments and international organisations can work better together. Already the three major U.N. organisations in this area, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the World Health Organisation, and the OIE, or the World Animal Health Organisation, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work much closer together in this One Health space.

And there was a lot of discussion of how that could be progressed, and how we could breakdown the silos that see us developing policies together, rather than in isolation. And there’s planned to be another inter-governmental meeting in Mexico, in November this year, that will help drive forward the things that were discussed at the Conference in terms of making all these organisations work more effectively together.

Interviewer: Hmm. And it’s great to hear that there’s some real momentum happening there. But overall, just in summation, what was the main message that you took away from the Conference?

Dr Jeggo: There were two. One, the risks are increasing from infectious diseases. Two, we need to work more closely together in the One Health space to manage those risks effectively.

Interviewer: Great. Well, hopefully a lot more work can be done on those two points before the next Congress rolls around.  Appreciate your time talking to me today, Martyn.

Dr Jeggo: OK. Thanks very much.

Interviewer: Dr Martyn Jeggo from CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory. For more information visit