Joining forces to fight zoonotic pathogens around the world!

At the beginning of 2006 bird flu was the main topic in the media. There were fears that the pathogen could adapt to humans and that the disease would then pose a serious threat to health. So far, these fears have proved unfounded. Diseases caused by Salmonella or other pathogens such as Campylobacter and enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC), in Europe may be far less spectacular but they do have a much bigger impact on health and the national economy. In Germany alone 55,000 cases of campylobacteriosis and 52,000 cases of salmonellosis were reported last year, and the headlines are currently dominated by news of EHEC infections. In the European Union alone, zoonoses of this kind, i.e. diseases caused by pathogens that cross from animals to humans, generate costs of more than EUR 6 billion. So where is there a need for more intensive research and what prevention strategies are called for? To answer this and similar questions, a three-day meeting held at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in Berlin, will commence today. Scientists from the zoonoses network Med-Vet-Net are joining with experts from the American Food Safety Research Consortium (FSRC) to discuss how to establish meaningful scientific priority setting for the control of zoonotic pathogens given the scarcity of funds and resources. The conference will seek to elucidate key scientific questions, identify opportunities for the promotion of research and optimise global cooperation in this field.

The focus of the conference is on the further development of scientific methods to identify the main risks to health from zoonotic pathogens. To this end, the available data must be collected, rated and any gaps identified. This includes data on the importance of the various routes of infection and sources of foodborne and zoonotic infections in humans as well as other data on the incidence of human disease, quality of life and related costs. By integrating this information, it is possible to weigh the importance of these pathogens and the diseases caused by them. This scientific priority setting helps to make consumer health protection more effective. Besides the prevention of illness and suffering in humans, the emphasis is also on the most effective use of financial resources. As these resources are limited, the Network aims to help contain the costs generated by zoonoses every year and find the most cost-effective ways of controlling them.

Med-Vet-Net was set up in 2004 by the European Union as a Network of Excellence in the Framework Programme 6. The Network comprises leading scientists from varied disciplines such as medicine, veterinary medicine, food hygiene, health sciences, economics and policy advice. It consists of 16 institutes in 10 countries, and includes BfR as a partner institute in Germany. Its goal is to develop joint strategies to fight diseases that cross from animals to humans. By means of intensive and ongoing interdisciplinary cooperation, the assessment of the current risk potential of zoonotic pathogens for humans is to be adapted to the current epidemiological situation and an action plan drawn up.

For instance, scientists are currently collaborating closely on gaining greater understanding of how Salmonella spread through livestock and on improving control in herds and (laying hen) flocks. Joint research projects and international workshops are designed to draw together and discuss findings from the countries concerned. In special training courses and exchange programmes the experiences of countries with successful control programmes are passed on to countries which do not yet have this expertise. It is through this exchange of knowledge that the scientists from Med-Vet-Net make their contribution to consumer health protection.

The U.S.-based Food Safety Research Consortium is a collaboration among seven leading academic research centres to develop analytical tools for food safety priority setting. The tools focus on identifying and evaluating the public health benefits of measures to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The FSRC works closely with U.S. government food safety agencies and has developed a computer-based Foodborne Illness Risk Ranking Model (FIRRM), which will be presented at the Berlin conference.

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