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Zoonoses Uncaged!

We live in a country where many of us are proud to be known as “dog people” or “cat people,” where a petting zoo is the highlight of the weekend for a toddler, and where the average American may consume more than 125 lbs of meat (red meat and poultry combined) in a year.  Given our relationships with animals, would it surprise you to know that even mundane exposure to pets, livestock, wildlife, and insects has the potential to result in a zoonotic infection, and that there are currently 868 known zoonotic diseases?  

While most people have never heard of zoonoses, scientists estimate that 3 out of 5 infectious diseases in humans originate from an animal source.  The culprit may be a virus, bacteria, parasite, or fungus and infection can occur at any point along the human-animal interface, including direct contact with an animals or insect; exposure to food, water, or air; or indirect contact with objects contaminated by an infectious zoonotic.  In many cases, these animal-acquired infections can then transmit from person to person directly, indirectly, or through a vector such as a tick or mosquito.

While this may be the first time you are hearing the name zoonoses, these diseases have been around since the dawn of man.  While the majority of people tend to recover completely from an infection, history abounds with examples of zoonotic diseases wreaking havoc.  The Bubonic Plague, a bacterial zoonosis transmitted by the bit of a flea, killed many millions across Europe and Asia between 300 and 1800 AD.  The flu outbreak of 1917/1918 (known as the Great Influenza), which is believed to have been caused by a viral H1N1 flu strain that originated from pigs, resulted in so many deaths that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years.   In addition to morbidity and mortality, outbreaks can have economic impacts.  For example, during a SARS outbreak in China, Beijing experienced a 1.5 billion dollar loss in tourism.

While the current list of nearly 900 diseases seems daunting, there is a constant threat of newly emerging zoonoses, which are pathogens that have just acquired the ability to affect humans, have mutated to become more virulent, or have developed drug resistance. Two recent examples of emerging zoonotic infections include Ebola and Zika.

The U.S. Public Health system was created in late 1700s with the mission of controlling infectious diseases.  Thankfully, a strong public health infrastructure, modern hygiene, education, antibiotics, medical intervention, and vaccinations have drastically reduced the burden of zoonotic diseases in the United States.  However, despite our best public health efforts, classic zoonotic infections still impact hundreds of Floridians each year, resulting in productivity loss, hospitalizations, and sometimes death. In addition, emerging zoonoses are a constant threat. 

The mission of public health remains unchanged – city, county, state, and federal public health entities seek to keep the public safe but when a new threat arises, additional funding is needed to maintain this critical mission.  Florida TaxWatch is encouraged that Congress recently passed a bill to appropriate the necessary funds to ensure public safety and economic stability in the face of a Zika outbreak, through increased mosquito control, the development of a vaccine (perhaps led by Florida State University researchers), public education on avoiding the threat, and increased monitoring of and testing for the virus, among other efforts.

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