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Biodiversity loss correlates with rise of infectious disease, study says

As natural habitats and species are pushed to the brink of extinction, the risk of humans contracting disease rises, according to a new study.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

As natural habitats and species are pushed to the brink of extinction, the risk of humans contracting disease rises, according to a new study.

According to University of Florida ecologist Robert Holt, incidence of infectious diseases increased as species and environmental loss increased. Reviewing data on plants, animals and bacteria -- as well as "hot" diseases such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease and Hantavirus -- Holt and Bard College biologist Felicia Keesing found that some pathogens flourished under less biologically-diverse conditions.

What could cause a degradation of biodiversity? According to the researchers:

  • Land use transformation
  • Climate change
  • Overharvesting
  • Overuse of antibiotics

The effects are pronounced if a top predator becomes extinct, they said.

So how does this occur, you ask? Take a population of opossums in Virginia forests.

The animals are actually able to kill disease-carrying ticks when they attach to them -- so when the opossum population declines, the tick population increases, feasting on the Virginia white-footed mouse. Mice reproduce rapidly and in great numbers, so the situation quickly worsens.

Add Lyme disease to the mix, and humans are suddenly much more at risk of contracting the pathogen.

Similarly, the recent rapid rise of Avian influenza in Asia has been linked to bird habitat loss. (In the U.S., the prevalence of national parks help mitigate this possibility.)

Global biodiversity has declined rapidly in the last 60 years. Extinction rates are projected to rise dramatically in the next five decades. According to the researchers, the emergence of disease will correlate -- unless action is taken immediately.

And clearly, several industries, from agriculture to pharmaceuticals, play a part.

The paper was published in the journal Nature.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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