The very sinister side of nature

It's hard not to love nature this time of the year. Our forests are verdant, our rivers free flowing, the air clear and cool (OK, maybe not so much some days but stick with me) and our wildlife full of scamper and renewal.

It's the same pretty much throughout the world, but the darker side is nature can and does kill.

Recent readings and viewings have highlighted how over the centuries, nature has impacted human life in deadly, horrible ways.

The annoying mosquito? The largest killer of mankind — mostly through malaria but by spreading other diseases as well. In fact researchers believe that half of all of humankind's deaths are related to the mosquito. And you just find it annoying when you're out in the evening.

The list of deadly diseases mosquitoes carry is truly impressive. Yellow fever, dengue fever, chikungunya, lymphatic filariasis, Rift Valley fever, West Nile fever and several types of encephalitis, according to a recent article in The New Yorker.

If some of those sound familiar it's because West Nile has been in Michigan for years, although apparently it is in a down cycle as the crows have come back in large numbers this summer. Tired of all the cawing yet?

But nature has also created a number of killer diseases over the years coming out of the animal ranks. AIDS. Ebola. Sars. The above mentioned West Nile. Lyme disease.

But you know what? Many of the diseases escape out of nature because of things that we as humans do, according to Jim Robbins writing in The New York Times.

As the human population expands and people push farther and farther into nature, we unwittingly open ourselves to pathogens that can kill directly or mutate into something much more formidable than the disease that occurs in animals.

Robbins writes of a group of scientists, veterinarians, medical doctors and epidemiologists who are working together on a project called Predict to understand the "ecology of disease." They are trying to predict where the next outbreak of diseases will spill over into humans and how to check it if it does.

And what's out there? The H1N1 is similar to swine flu; it's held in reserve by wild waterfowl and pigs, killed thousands in 2009. West Nile, held in reserve by birds, notably robins. SARS, a severe respiratory infection, held in reserve by horseshoe bats. Bird flu is held in reserve by wild waterfowl. The nastiest ones out there — ebola and Nipah virus, are both caused by bats and highly lethal. Hendra virus, a relative of Nipah virus, also held in reserve by bats.

Of course not all of the animals holding these diseases as a reservoir are infected and not all creatures of a type are carriers, but enough of them are and the consequences are dire.

The Predict project works to identify places in the world where the human/animal interface might possibly result in an outbreak of these diseases and to try and ameliorate the possibility of that happening.

One wonders, however, as the world population continues to grow and grow and civilization pushes farther into the jungle, whether we'll ever be able to control the spread of some of these incredibly fatal diseases.

While it sounds like a daunting task and it is (many of the pesticides, etc. that have been used to control mosquitoes no longer are effective) it is reassuring that the Predict project is under way and at least some of the world's scientists and health professionals are out there looking to keep us safe or at least bottle up these diseases before they can spread.

But there's a little niggling voice in the back of the mind that says "What's out there we DON'T know about yet?"

The reality — only about 1 percent of the viruses in animals have been studied. That leaves plenty of room on the human/animal interface for something else to come along in the future.

And here you thought nature was only alluring.


Kendall P. Stanley is retired editor of the Petoskey News-Review. He can be contacted at kendallstanley@charter.net.

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