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11 August 2019

JCU senior lecturer and virologist, Dr Paul Horwood, is helping to create an international network of researchers to enhance surveillance of emerging infectious diseases in live bird markets, a major menace to both animal and human global health security.

“As a global community, we need to work together to develop an early warning system to identify risks of emerging infectious disease (EID) outbreaks, and also mitigate the effects of outbreaks by helping to contain them closer to their source. If we can prevent outbreaks occurring in the first place, that is obviously in everyone's best interests,” he said.

Dr Horwood played a leading role in organising an international symposium, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on 12-14 June, to establish the Consortium of Animal Market Networks to Assess Risk of Emerging Infectious Diseases through Enhanced Surveillance (CANARIES). The acronym is an apt reference to the birds once used to alert workers to the presence of deadly gases in coal mines.  

The workshop attracted around 50 participants from Cambodia, Australia, United Kingdom, Egypt, Bangladesh, Chile and the US, including live bird market researchers and representatives from international bodies such as the United Nations World Health Organization, and Food and Agriculture Organization.

Home to a number of centralised, large-scale live bird markets, Cambodia is among the world’s recognised “hot spots” for EIDs in south and south-east Asia, west and central Africa and the Middle East.

“These are places where there is a high population density of humans and domestic animals, and also ongoing encroachment into areas with wild animals – high-risk interfaces where we see the emergence of new pathogens, including high-risk pathogens that can cause outbreaks,” said Dr Horwood. 

Prior to joining JCU in 2017, he spent three years working at the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge (Cambodia), tracking the evolution and spread of avian influenza through local live bird markets. The disease can be fatal to humans, as well as poultry. Former colleague, Dr Erik Karlsson, currently a Senior Research Fellow with the Institut, was also a driving force behind the CANARIES workshop.

Centralized live bird markets are a hub for poultry movement. While they spread disease, they could also assist researchers to identify a wider spectrum of emerging pathogens in the region.

“A number of researchers are currently undertaking avian influenza surveillance in live bird markets, around the world, so it would not be a huge addition to our work, to look for other pathogens as well,” said Dr Horwood.

The CANARIES symposium flagged several research priorities, including tracking the rate of antimicrobial resistant pathogens in live market birds and also veterinary pathogens (which only afflict animals).

“The majority of antibiotics or antimicrobials that are used in the world are actually used in the veterinary sector. Antimicrobial resistance is now a huge threat to both humans and animals,” observed Dr Horwood.

“Veterinary pathogens have been neglected for some time, due to the focus on pathogens that affect humans. But we need to remember that veterinary pathogens affect the livelihoods of countless people in these countries.”

The CANARIES network has already begun to open channels of communication between researchers, via email and Twitter, and joint research publications are in the pipeline.

“I think it is incredibly important that we open dialogue and share knowledge,” said Dr Horwood.

The CANARIES symposium was co-funded by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Cooperative Threat Reduction, Biological Threat Reduction Program, and the UK Global Challenges Research Fund. 

Image attribution: Jérémie Montessuis

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