Stories by Anne Rimoin, epidemiologist

Watch where people and animals interact

Our Expert Voices conversation on emerging diseases.

I always like to say, when predicting future disease outbreaks, what's past is prologue. More than 300 new diseases have emerged since 1940, and many of these have been the result of spillover from wild animal to human populations.

Zoonotic outbreaks are expected to increase as the buffer between humans and animals decreases and a disease can travel with humans from even the most remote region of the world to the other side of the globe within 24 hours.

We need better disease surveillance in human populations – especially those who are frequently in contact with wildlife. We should also be monitoring wildlife populations for changes such as die offs or major shifts in density or behavior that often precede zoonotic outbreaks in human populations.

Bottom line: We can't stop diseases from spilling over from animals to humans, but we can limit the extent of their spread and impact with good disease surveillance systems in place and the ability to rapidly respond. We must be ready to expect the unexpected.

Other voices in the conversation:

Expert Voices

We need to study outbreaks in real-time

Our Expert Voices conversation on pandemics.

We don't spend enough time trying to understand why and how previous epidemics occurred or capturing information about them as they are unfolding. We're always chasing outbreaks and scrambling to get research in place long after it should be conducted. And once outbreaks pass, funding and research opportunity dries up.

A model: I'm writing this from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we're studying survivors of previous Ebola outbreaks (including the very first cohort from 1976) and comparing them to survivors of the current outbreak — rather than waiting and trying to get protocols and ethical approvals after the fact. As recent Ebola and Zika epidemics have demonstrated, governmental and traditional funding cycles are too slow and unresponsive to time-sensitive global health issues.

Bottom line: The research protocols, infrastructure and funding need to be in place so we can be on the ground capturing data as it becomes available. There are no shortage of major problems facing the world, but pandemics, with their unique combination of speed and deadliness, deserve far more attention than they're currently getting. Understanding previous outbreaks and being ready to capture critical data as new ones unfold should be a funding priority.

Other voices in the conversation: