Lyme disease. West Nile virus. Malaria. Over the past several decades, scientists and public health officials have documented the outbreak of many troubling infectious diseases: illnesses once thought well under control are making a comeback or appearing in locations where they had never been seen before; brand new diseases are suddenly appearing on the scene.
Over the same time period that the frequency of emerging infectious diseases appears to be increasing, natural habitats and biological diversity (the abundance, composition and distribution of species) have been declining, primarily due to deforestation, development projects, and other human activities. Is there a link? While the current scientific literature suggests the answer is yes, there have been few integrative, interdisciplinary studies exploring the scientific connections between human health and biodiversity. A new research initiative at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aims to fill that void.
EPA recognizes the critical role healthy ecosystems play in protecting our health and well-being, and conserving biological diversity is a primary way to sustain healthy ecosystems and the critical benefits-including protection from disease-they provide.
EPA scientists are exploring the underlying mechanisms of disease emergence and their links to biodiversity through their contributions to GEOSS (the Global Earth Observation System of Systems), a large national and international cooperative research effort to better understand worldwide changing environmental conditions through the development, use, and sharing of earth observations.
Using such comprehensive imaging allows EPA scientists to combine data across multiple spatial scales and academic disciplines, at once exploring the scientific factors linking human-caused environmental stressors (such as deforestation and climate change), changes in biological diversity, and the transmission of diseases from animals to people.
As one of the few truly interdisciplinary research efforts, the EPA/GEOSS emerging disease/biodiversity program is bringing experts together from many different fields to coordinate earth observations and integrate it with social, ecological, and health information.
The approach is to focus new knowledge and tools in order to inform decision-makers, ultimately leading to improved integrated pest management programs, land use/development guidance, and social-behavioral changes that together better protect both human health and the environment. EPA is working with U.S. Federal partners and international organizations to advance this work.