Guest Blog: Dr.Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance

Monday, June 4, 2012
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As a disease ecologist and leader of an independent scientific organization, I continually ask my team to think ‘outside the box’ when it comes to the most pressing ecohealth issues we face day-to-day. Our scientists are encouraged to think critically about the environment and health, beginning with research at the ecosystem level to predict and prevent disease emergence in animals and humans.

Case in point, as a young scientist two decades ago, I experienced first-hand the global decline of amphibians. ‘Outside the box’ thinking was not the scientific community or public’s first response. Speculation abounded that pollution, climate change, pesticides, UV-B light, habitat loss, and the global trade in frogs were all or in-part causing these massive declines that spanned the Americas and Australia.

Research was quickly conducted and published in high-impact journals. Myths about amphibian declines took hold. But looking at the data and doing further research with collaborators, I knew there was something more going on.

The ultimate discovery of the fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, put everything in perspective. But this was only the beginning of a long road to understanding amphibian declines. The discovery of chytridiomycosis was an important breakthrough and it took almost 15 years of independent scientific analysis and targeted research to finally define its role in the extinction of many frog species and the loss of billions of individual animals. Ultimately, as a result of the work I was involved in the World Organization for Animal Health listed the disease as notifiable in 2008. That disease discovery in 1998 brought about a marked shift in emphasis, with the disease now accepted as the major driver of the amphibian declines.

Applying this same methodology, EcoHealth Alliance has now expanded our work to examine the issues surrounding honey bee declines. In many ways, the state of research on bee declines mirrors early work on amphibian declines conducted decades ago, when ‘outside the box’ thinking was sorely missing.

In late 2011, we conducted a literature review as well as a survey of beekeepers and scientists on honey bee health issues. That initial first step gave us the groundwork to start developing recommendations for future research directions to uncover the key drivers of honey bee declines.

The literature review covered the political and socioeconomic factors behind colony losses as well as many of the current hypotheses regarding the causes of honey bee declines including pathogens and pests; pesticides; environmental factors; colony management practices; and multifactorial theories.

The data from recent research on the causes of colony losses and honey bee population declines suggest that the most important drivers of decline in colony numbers are political and socioeconomic factors, while the spread of introduced pathogens and pests like the Varroa mite has led to significant annual colony losses. While other causal hypotheses including pesticides have received substantial attention scientifically, the role of pests, pathogens, and management issues is under-researched and requires increased attention.

Our ultimate hope with this initial study is to broaden the discussion about honey bee declines and colony losses, using sound scientific evidence and new research to examine all potential causes of these issues. That’s precisely what made the difference in the understanding and addressing amphibian declines two decades ago.

-- Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance

About Peter Daszak, PhD
Dr. Peter Daszak is President of EcoHealth Alliance and a respected disease ecologist. He leads EcoHealth Alliance’s visionary work to change perspectives, policy and practices that increase global capacity to respond to emerging threats at the intersection of health and the environment. Dr. Daszak’s research and leadership are instrumental in predicting and preventing the impact of emerging infectious diseases in hotspot regions worldwide, including SARS, Nipah Virus, and Avian Influenza. Most notably, Dr. Daszak led the discovery of the first case of a species extinction caused by a disease. The disease, chytridomycosis, continues to affect amphibians worldwide. This work led to significant policy changes in the global wildlife trade.

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