Wild animals carry all sorts of viruses. Not only do these viruses harm animals, they can also spread widely between animal populations and can sometimes affect human health too. Viruses that we know affect humans, such as rabies, HIV and influenza, all originated in animals.

Why is this important?

Can you remember the stories about 'swine flu' in the news recently?

HIV_200Swine flu was a new disease for humans, but people quite often receive new infections from wildlife. Over the past few decades there have been several occasions where a new virus has emerged from animals to cause widespread infections among humans.

Some of these emerging infections have been much less damaging than initially feared, for example last year's swine flu did not turn out to be as bad as was predicted. Others have caused widespread illness and hardship, particularly HIV. HIV originated from similar viruses found in certain species of monkey and ape.

 

The problem of drug resistance

Syringe_250In addition to preventing new viruses entering the human population, scientists are also concerned about those viruses already known to infect humans. Viruses can become resistant both to drugs used to treat the disease they cause, and also to vaccines given to people to prevent infection.

In the case of seasonal flu, new vaccines are developed each year to give to the elderly and other people most at risk, because the virus mutates each year.

If you are interested learning more about vaccines, see our resource about vaccination and Edward Jenner FRS who invented the first vaccine,

People suffering from HIV have to have their viruses checked to see whether they carry resistance to particular drugs. This allows doctors to prescribe the most effective medicine for them, that can overcome any drug resistance their version of HIV might have.

 

How can science help?

DNAMany scientists are working hard to identify, treat and prevent infectious diseases caused by viruses, and they are making progress all the time. However it is still very difficult to predict which diseases in animals might become dangerous emerging infections in humans. If scientists study how viruses evolve and spread between animals and humans, this can help prevent wildlife diseases from turning into human pandemics (when a disease spreads throughout the world).

Scientists are also studying the genetic sequences of viruses to help them understand how viruses evolve drug resistance. New techniques are constantly being developed to make it quicker and easier to decode and read the genetic code of viruses. Decoded sequences can then be passed onto doctors to help them make correct diagnoses and prescribe the best drugs for their patients. Reading, understanding and using viral sequences are also important in helping to understand how viruses pass from animals to humans, and how to treat humans infected with one of these diseases.