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Science and SocietyHeidelberg Forum

Albert Osterhaus

Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 18:00 Print Media Academy, Kurfürstenanlage 52-60, Heidelberg

Mit freundlicher Unterstützung der Manfred Lautenschläger Stiftung

Prof. Dr. Albert D. M. E. Osterhaus

Department of Virology, Erasmus MC, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Epidemics and Pandemics in a globalised world

In the past century, pandemic outbreaks of influenza and AIDS have cost the lives of tens of millions of people. These events were all caused by multiple introductions of animal viruses – influenza A viruses and SIV of birds and non-human primates respectively – into the human population. Besides these introductions causing major pandemics in humans, a large number of other virus infections have spilled over from animal reservoirs to humans or other susceptible species, resulting in considerable morbidity and mortality as "virgin soil" epidemics. The most recent examples in humans are the introduction of SARS coronavirus and influenza A viruses (H5N1 and H7N7) from the animal world, which caused global concern about their potential to be at the origin of new pandemics.

Over the last decades, there seems to be a dramatic increase in the emergence or re-emergence of virus threats in humans and animals worldwide. A long list of exotic names like Ebola, Lassa, Rift-Valley, Crimea-Congo, Hendra, Nipah and West-Nile illustrates just some of the places associated with the origin of viruses that crossed the species boundary to humans, with dramatic consequences in the last ten years alone. Similarly, recent mass mortalities among wild aquatic and terrestrial mammals caused by previously known and newly discovered morbiliviruses, as well as outbreaks of hog cholera, foot-and-mouth disease and fowl plague and blue tongue disease among domestic animals, highlight this trend.

Although improved detection and surveillance techniques, as well as increased media attention may have contributed to our perception of an increase in the incidence of outbreaks of virus infections, it is becoming more and more clear that major changes in our modern society increasingly create new opportunities for virus infections to emerge: a complex mix of changes in social environments, medical and agricultural technologies and ecosystems continues to create new niches for viruses to cross species boundaries and to rapidly adapt to new species. In combating this global threat, we should make optimal use of the new tools provided by the unprecedented advances made in the research areas of virology, molecular biology, immunology, epidemiology, genomics and bioinformatics. Serious investment in these areas in the future will not only be highly cost-effective but will also save many lives of humans and animals. In addition, better collaboration and coordination between all the stakeholders is urgently needed, to establish early warning systems and effective preparedness plans.

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