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Americans Worried About Global Pandemics, Yet Lack Knowledge Of Their Likely Source, Survey Shows

Monkeys

First Posted: 12/14/11 12:52 PM ET Updated: 12/14/11 01:34 PM ET

Two out of every three Americans worry about the potential for a global disease outbreak. (Thank you, "Contagion.")

Yet, alongside this result from a new survey released Wednesday is a potentially more frightening figure: Fewer than one in five Americans are aware that the next big pandemic is likely to originate in animals. (Avian or swine flu, anyone?)

Perhaps it's unfortunate then that the source of the recent film's fictitious but realistic MEV-1 virus -- which killed hundreds of thousands of people as it swept across the globe -- received just a few seconds of screen time at the very end.

"We've done a great job of selling what an outbreak would look like -- very dramatic and tragic," said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization of scientists dedicated to conserving biodiversity. "But the real tragedy is that we're still doing the things that would cause the next pandemic even if we have the vaccine for the last one."

As Daszak's research has found, a tropical country such as Malaysia or Bangladesh is the most likely source of the next great pandemic, thanks in large part to rapid human development alongside dense populations of wildlife in these regions.

Overall, experts think that about 75 percent of newly emerging infectious diseases originate in animals.

"Animals carry viruses. The reason they are getting into us is that we are chopping down trees, building farms next to forests and trading wild animals," said Dr. Jonathan H. Epstein, a wildlife veterinarian with EcoHealth Alliance, which commissioned the study. "Everything comes back to human activities."

However, less than half of the more than 1,000 adults surveyed made these connections. And fewer than a third recognized the roles played by climate change and hunting in the spread of disease, according to the study, conducted at the end of October.

Just over half of Americans, on the other hand, knew that air travel contributes to global disease outbreaks.

"People are generally aware of disease spread with foreign travel (don't drink the water!), but when on vacation never consider what they could bring back and how quickly diseases can spread," said Dr. Anthony Pilny, an exotic pet veterinarian at The Center for Avian & Exotic Medicine in New York City.

Most Americans also overestimate the time it would take for an outbreak to make its way to the U.S. from the other side of the world, the report suggests. The majority of people surveyed thought it would take at least a week; scientists estimate the travel time at just a couple of days.

"The U.S. is the most connected country on the planet. So we're on the front line for diseases coming out of the tropics," Daszak said. "We're worried about a pandemic, and with good reason."

Infectious disease experts emphasize that raising awareness is critical to preventing pandemics. "Better educated people are more likely to take preventive precautions," such as hand-washing, vaccinations and dealing carefully with livestock, wildlife and pets, said Dr. Bruce Kaplan, a retired veterinarian in Florida. Kaplan works with the One Health Initiative, a movement that emphasizes the need for coordination among medical, veterinary and environmental health scientists.

"One Health shines a spotlight on integrated needs for disease surveillance, prevention and proper health care measures," Kaplan added. "We believe that this is translating and will translate into a better awareness by the public of the steps they can take to stay healthy."

As HuffPost reported in September, the end of "Contagion" has a short sequence of clips that act as a prequel to the nightmare scenario that plays out in the film: A bulldozer clears a patch of trees for a new piggery, into which a displaced and diseased bat drops a chunk of banana, which is gobbled up by a pig that later lands in the hands of a chef. The chef then shakes the hand of Gwyneth Paltrow -- who catches a plane home from Hong Kong to the States, taking the bat-borne virus with her. She dies a few days later.

"As much as public health talks about prevention, we've always been reactive. We'll wait until there's an outbreak in people before we act," said EcoHealth's Epstein, who is helping to locate emerging disease threats through the PREDICT program. He spends about half of the year in tropical countries, capturing bats and other wildlife to test for pathogens.

"People probably wouldn't want to see a movie that dealt with not deforesting an area and not having a tragic outbreak," Daszak said. "But the real heroes are those people who are stopping the outbreak from ever happening."

"'Contagion' may be the story people want to hear," he added. "But the real story happens right at the end."

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