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Humans have always depended on services provided by ecosystems, such as the provision of food, clean air, and water and the stabilization of climate. Conserving biodiversity is a primary means of sustaining these services, especially in response to changing conditions (Loreau 2001; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Yet our actions in the past 50 years have changed these systems to an unprecedented degree, reducing biodiversity, altering habitats, and putting these provisioning services at risk. In fact, biodiversity loss may threaten to outweigh all environmental efforts: observed rates of species extinction are as much as a thousand times higher than average in the fossil record (Pimm et al. 1995).
At the same time, infectious diseases appear to be emerging and reemerging at a faster rate (Daszak and Hyatt 2000; Wilcox and Gubler 2005). One common, defining feature of these emerging diseases is that they are triggered by anthropogenic changes to the environment (Patz et al. 2004; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). For example, the loss or extinction of large predators because of hunting and land-use change can cause an increase in the population of a particular vector or competent host reservoir, which can result in increased transmission of human disease (Allan et al. 2003; Dobson et al. 2006). Disease agents with much of their life cycles occurring outside of the human host (e.g., water and vector-borne) are sensitive to environmental conditions, and it is these diseases for which most linkages to ecosystem conditions have been found.
The United Nations, through its Millennium Development Goals, recognizes the need to reconcile biodiversity conservation and the promotion of health and well-being. Despite this recognition, biodiversity conservation and human health are generally not addressed in the same context. EPA is seeking to understand this relationship in a broad spectrum of disease systems. Examples of biodiversity and human health issues in which we have special interest include:
- Biodiversity decline and increased incidence of water- and vector-borne diseases
- Habitat loss from deforestation, urbanization and agricultural land practices and increased incidence of infectious disease
- Biological invasions and the spread of infectious diseases
- Relationship of primate health to habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, and the transfer of diseases between humans and other primates
- The effect of wildlife trade and agricultural practices on the emergence and spread of infectious diseases
EPA has contributed to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) a new interdisciplinary research program to better understand the scientific factors linking human stressors (such as climate change and deforestation), changes in biodiversity, and disease transmission. If we can better understand how environmental factors and people’s behaviors contribute to emerging diseases, we may be able to make better decisions to reduce, and perhaps, prevent disease.