Linking human and animal health may be key to stopping MERS

Connecting human, animal and environmental health approaches may be the only way to counteract Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), a Princeton University researcher said on Tuesday.

Laura Kahn, a general internist who works on the research staff of Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security, said there is one important shared characteristic of MERS-CoV, Ebola, avian influenza and bioterrorism diseases like anthrax. The diseases are all zoonotic, which means they originated in animals and spread to humans, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports.

Kahn said that using a "one health" approach, in which human, animal and environmental health are linked, would allow animal and human doctors to share laboratories, integrate animal and human disease surveillance and control zoonotic diseases in animal reservoirs. The approach might allow for early outbreak detection to prevent deadly pandemics.

"The spread of MERS might have been prevented through such measures," Kahn said, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "Like (severe acute respiratory syndrome), it is believed to have originated in bats. The virus apparently gives camels colds, and people in close contact with the animals get sick... the virus had been circulating in camels for almost a decade before jumping to humans in the spring of 2012. But people only tend to notice zoonotic diseases after they have gotten into human populations."

Kahn said that while the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health established an agreement to work together to monitor and address zoonotic diseases, the system contains inherent problems. She said the World Organisation for Animal Health is underfunded and the FAO doesn't have the workforce to run field offices worldwide.

MERS has killed 141 people and has a mortality rate of approximately 30 percent. Poor infection control measures in Saudi Arabia could facilitate further spread of the virus. Kahn said the one health approach may prevent future diseases like MERS from becoming deadly worldwide pandemics, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports.

"Only one health can address emerging zoonotic diseases in a way that saves scarce health resources as well as lives," Kahn said, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "Health authorities and governments didn't act on the lessons of the past, but they can prepare for the future. Integrating the surveillance of human and animal illnesses could promptly identify the next novel disease that emerges from animals and reduce its likelihood of becoming a deadly global pandemic."