Via the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a thought-provoking column by Laura H. Kahn: How to fight MERS and other zoonotic diseases. Excerpt:
The most important shared characteristic of ailments like MERS, SARS, Ebola, avian influenza, West Nile virus, and even diseases of bioterrorism like anthrax, though, is the fact that they are zoonotic: That is, they originate in animals and then spread to humans. And this fact points the way to fighting them. Only through a “One Health” approach, which treats human and animal health as all part of the same system, can they be prevented.
One Health is the simple concept that human, animal, and environmental health are linked. In practice, a One Health approach could mean having animal and human doctors share laboratories and integrating animal and human disease surveillance, which would help control zoonotic diseases in animal reservoirs, enable early outbreak detection, and prevent deadly pandemics.
The spread of MERS might have been prevented through such measures. Like SARS, it is believed to have originated in bats. The virus apparently gives camels colds, and people in close contact with the animals get sick. (Consuming raw camel milk and infected meat can encourage transmission but is not required.)
Veterinarians had been collecting camel blood as far back as 2003. Serum specimens from 151 camels collected that year in the United Arab Emirates and Europe showed that all of them had antibodies to MERS. So 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.
Sadly, lessons from earlier epidemics went unheeded. Scientists figured out from SARS that bats were the host species that spread the virus to civet cats, which subsequently spread it to people. SARS and avian influenza prompted the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Organisation for Animal Health to establish an agreement to work together to monitor and address zoonotic diseases.
Unfortunately, inherent problems in the system remained. The World Organisation for Animal Health is vastly underfunded and understaffed compared to the WHO and the FAO and doesn’t have the workforce to run field offices around the world. Also, the three organizations depend on countries to report to them, and in the case of animal disease, surveillance capabilities vary widely, depending on the national veterinary workforce, which may range from adequate to non-existent.