Risky business: how we view wildlife disease

9 12 2013

In October, a study came out in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases examining how Americans assess the risks posed to them from diseases that originate or circulate in wildlife populations. Humans are notoriously poor at allocating risk; swimming at a beach where a shark has been sighted recently gives a person pause, while climbing into a car each morning for a drive down the highway raises not an eyebrow, despite the fact that vastly, vastly more people will die on the roads in one year in America alone than were killed by sharks worldwide over the past decade. In this, we magnify the risk of shark attack and minimize the risk of driving.

Based on this trend, and in my general interest in wildlife disease, I was most interested in the findings of this recent study. The researchers sent questionnaires to random recipients all over the country. The respondents were asked about one of three diseases: rabies virus; the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus (WNV); and plague, which is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and circulates in rodent populations out west. Respondents were asked about their impressions of severity of risk (how dire are the consequences of infection?), susceptibility (how likely is it that infection will occur?), and dread (how much worry or anxiety does thinking about the disease induce?). Finally, they were asked to assess all these impressions in terms of human health; the health of pets, livestock and other domestic animals; and the health of wildlife.

Survey distributed to respondents nationwide.

Survey distributed to respondents nationwide.

Perhaps cynically, I had assumed that the average American would mainly be concerned with human health and domestic animal health. What the study showed, however, was that respondents were quite concerned about the impacts of disease on wildlife themselves. Overall, respondents tended to feel that the severity of risk was greatest for humans (this makes sense–if one’s child contracts rabies, for instance, the personal consequences are enormous), but both susceptibility and dread were quite high when ranking risk to wildlife. Respondents were particularly concerned about diseases known to arise or spread when human disturbance alters a region’s ecology. Lyme disease, Hantavirus, West Nile Virus and many others are now known to undergo shifts in infection patterns, prevalence and exposure risk based on human alterations to the environment.

Some other general trends revealed in this study may offer additional insights into how best to educate the public. Women tended to perceive greater risks across the board than men, while a college degree and greater age were linked to a decline in overall assessment of risk. Contrary to the study authors’ expectations, respondents with young children assigned less risk to all three diseases, than those without young children, though the underlying reasons for this are unclear and warrant further study.

What this paper does show is that we need not always take the human health angle when communicating with the public about wildlife diseases. It appears that many Americans are at least somewhat concerned with the health and survival of wildlife populations for their own sake. This affinity for wildlife can be enlisted in a push for greater understanding of the interrelatedness of human, domestic animal and wildlife health. This concept of One Health seems to be gaining traction, I am pleased to see. I am also gratified to see that education is a strong predictor of accurate risk assessment. These two points underpin the basic approach we take here at SEANET: in education and preservation of wildlife lie the salvation of the world.

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