Science Wednesday: Biodiversity Loss Impacts Global Disease Ecology

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.
In this month’s Bioscience , we lead a team of ecologists, epidemiologists, an economist, and policy analyst on an article linking biodiversity decline and infectious disease transmission.

For the paper, the research team reviewed and compared seven case studies—malaria, schistosomiasis, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, enteric disease, and allergic diseases—and developed a typology of proposed mechanisms linking human health and biodiversity, from the level of genes to habitats.

What did we find? For one thing, the recent emergence and reemergence of infectious diseases appears to be driven by globalization and ecological disruption. We propose that habitat destruction and biodiversity loss can increase the incidence and distribution of infectious diseases affecting humans.

We think the article could have a major impact on our understanding of the relationship between biodiversity and human health, and the use of new environmentally-based strategies to protect both the environment and public health.

Protecting natural areas, such as national parks and refuges, is the focus of many conservation efforts, but this approach alone cannot prevent biodiversity loss. And since typically not very many people live near these areas, most people don’t realize how valuable they are.

We suggest that biodiversity protection may be just as important to people on a local scale, in their everyday lives, and that science-based management approaches can produce co-benefits for conservation and for human health.

Our paper is a truly interdisciplinary undertaking. While we have training in public health and conservation biology, our fellow contributors include ecologists, epidemiologists, an economist, and a policy analyst. As is the case with biodiversity protection, we believe that this interdisciplinary approach has multiple advantages. It allows us to explore biodiversity conservation, the history of disease, and to take an economic perspective (relevant to decision-making processes) on these disciplines.

The paper concludes with ways we think we can move forward in research and policy, but that will certainly involve more interdisciplinary work on our part. We’re looking forward to that!

About the Authors: Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, is an Environmental Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor, and Joe Roman, PhD, is a conservation biologist and a Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, University of Vermont, Burlington. He was previously at the EPA as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.