Our scientists are undertaking research to help protect the health of our animals, people and way of life from emerging infectious zoonotic diseases - diseases that have the ability to pass between animals and people.

The challenge

Zoonotic emerging infectious diseases are on the rise

The past 30 years has seen a rise in emerging infectious diseases in people, 70 per cent of which are zoonotic, meaning they have the ability to exist in animals but can transmit to people. They can be caused by many different infectious agents including viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Scientists believe that a chance mutation of a SARS-like virus occurred in civet cats infected by bats in a live animal market.

Zoonotic infections have always been a part of the human disease landscape, with many originating from domestic animals. The long list includes influenza, tuberculosis, anthrax, plague and yellow fever.But with changes in environment, human behaviour and habitat destruction, these biosecurity threats are increasingly emerging from wildlife species such as bats and birds.

Although it was established over a century ago that rabies was linked to bats, the research community was surprised to find that the SARS virus – which claimed more than 800 lives and cost more than $80bn globally in 2002-2003 – emerged from bats, passed to civet cats and ultimately infected people in the live animal markets of southern China.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and most infectious disease experts agree that the source of the next human pandemic is likely to be zoonotic and wildlife is likely the prime suspect. While much effort has understandably focused on preparing against avian influenza, the next deadly pandemic may be the result of a currently unknown zoonotic agent.

Spotlight on bats

Since the identification of bats as the source of the SARS epidemic, the global focus on emerging infectious disease has turned to them to understand and ultimately predict the source of the next human pandemic.

In the past 20 years, a significant number of highly lethal viral diseases have emerged from bat species across the world. These include Hendra virus and Australian bat lyssavirus in Australia and Nipah virus in Malaysia and Bangladesh, where outbreaks have reached mortality levels of 100 per cent. Haemorrhagic fever viruses, including the feared and lethal Ebola and Marburg viruses, have also emerged from bats in Africa and Asia. Intriguingly, bats can carry these deadly viruses without themselves showing signs of disease.

Our response

World leading science

It is impossible to completely safeguard against zoonotic diseases but steps can and are being taken to limit the opportunity for spill-over events through monitoring and rapid response when and where they do occur.

Little brown bat hanging upside down in lychee tree clinging to a bunch of orange fruit

Lyssavirus has been isolated, or infection demonstrated, in both insectivorous and fruit bats (flying foxes)

Controlling zoonotic diseases and protecting our animals, people and environment from increasing biosecurity threats will not only take a global effort but a multidisciplinary one. It cannot be addressed adequately with traditional human medical strategies where disease is fought in the human population only.

If we are to prepare and respond adequately to the next zoonotic attack, we need to take a 'One Health' approach, taking in medical, veterinary, ecological and environmental factors.

Our scientists have developed world-leading methodologies to isolate viruses, in particular those found in bats.

Our research has led to the characterisation of new viruses and development of vaccines.

Through innovative science and international collaboration, our scientists have made a sustained and significant contribution to understanding and mitigating the threats posed by emerging infectious diseases and have become one of the world's leading emerging zoonotic disease research teams.

From 1994-2010 14 clusters of Hendra virus infection were recorded in horses.  ©lillisphotography

Saving animal and human lives

The Equivac® HeV horse vaccine (manufactured and marketed by Zoetis Australia), can help to save human lives by protecting horses from Hendra virus, thereby breaking the only known transmission pathway from bats to people.

The Hendra virus vaccine has been heralded internationally as an outstanding example of bringing the medical and veterinary community together to control a major public health threat.

Our researchers are continuing to study new and emerging infectious diseases to ensure we are prepared should they ever reach Australia.

They are developing the knowledge, tools and countermeasures to control and mitigate outbreaks of disease and underpin national security preparedness against pandemic and bioterrorist threats.

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