AGA IN ACTION
FAO works in linking epidemiological and genetic information
With increasing concentration and intensification of animal production, the incidence and risk of transboundary and zoonotic diseases are expected to rise. In fact, over 70 per cent of new animal diseases are zoonotic, with the potential for posing major public health threats. Animal diseases are consequentially detrimental to the livelihoods and food security of rural and urban populations, and also tend to exclude developing countries from participating in the large and economically important global trade of animals and animal products. In view of this, FAO participates in the compilation, organization, storage, verification and visual display of animal disease outbreaks data obtained from numerous sources that is utilized for early warning and risk analysis.
EMPRES-i is a web-based application that has been designed to support veterinary services by facilitating regional and global animal disease information. This global animal health information platform is supported by FAOs Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases (EMPRES).
FAO has commissioned a study to increase and improve our knowledge of the dynamic interplay at the pathogen-host-ecosystem interface by exploring the feasibility of linking genetic information on viruses with outbreak data reported in EMPRES-i. Using molecular epidemiology is important to increase our understanding of virus spread and virus ecology.
The potential outputs from linking this information are user-friendly reports and figures showing the genetic and phenotypic properties and evolution of viruses in combination with spatiotemporal epidemiological information allowing researchers to study genetic and antigenic differences and virus evolution in relation to pertinent livestock and landscape information, in addition to other peripheral risk factors. FAO has developed technological tools to support disease intelligence by leveraging its wealth of worldwide data sources, technical expertise and official networks, and the future perspective is to combine this information with detailed data on virus strains.
Strategic collaborations with bioinformaticians and research institutes, virologists, reference and molecular laboratories and national animal health services are therefore warranted to acquire reliable pre-analysed data on virus properties. This linking requires close collaboration between epidemiology and laboratory teams in countries, to be able to integrate epidemiological and virological data. This integration may need to overcome cultural and ideological gaps between these two fields of expertise.
The preliminary results of this feasibility study suggests that data available in the public domain on genetic characteristics of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1 HPAI) and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) make them ideal candidates for linking outbreak information and genetic information; however it warns that owing to inherent data limitations the resulting information and analyses will not be comprehensive. In the end, the rationale behind this innovative approach lies on our desire to obtain more and better information to properly inform animal health policymaking, coupled with improved protection of animal assets that support rural and urban livelihoods. This study was carried out by Petter Hopp, a Norwegian consultant who worked for three months for FAO.