Are emerging diseases emerging more?

Or is it just that they are more often recognized. Or more sensationally reported. A recent study suggests that “emerging” diseases such as HIV, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus and Ebola are more common.

By analyzing 335 incidents of previous disease emergence beginning in 1940, the study has determined that zoonoses – diseases that originate in animals – are the current and most important threat in causing new diseases to emerge. And most of these, including SARS and the Ebola virus, originated in wildlife. Antibiotic drug resistance has been cited as another culprit, leading to diseases such as extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR TB).

The scientists also found that more new diseases emerged in the 1980s than any other decade, “likely due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which led to a range of other new diseases in people,” said Mark Levy, deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESN) at Columbia University.

In what the researchers claim to be a “seminal movement in how we study emerging diseases” (I certainly hope they were wearing a condom…) they are prepared to predict where the next hotspots may be.

“Emerging disease hotspots are more common in areas rich in wildlife, so protecting these regions from development may have added value in preventing future disease emergence,” said Kate Jones, Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Zoology.

Press release is here.