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Thursday, March 4th, 2021

African health, veterinary and wildlife experts gather in Vienna to address disease outbreaks

A meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assembled experts in human and animal health last week to address early warning systems for animal-to-human (zoonotic) disease outbreaks.

“Early detection is the key,” Trevor Shoemaker, a CDC epidemiologist formerly based in Uganda, said. “You may not prevent the first one or two cases or deaths, but you can prevent additional people from being infected.”

The participants came from across Africa, with the goal of improving monitoring and containment systems for highly contagious viruses. Their presence, which addressed such problematic cases as avian influenza, Ebola, Marburg, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and monkeypox, was part of a project begun during the 2014 Ebola crisis, and which regularly provides diagnostic equipment and training to African nations. It is built on the knowledge that 75 percent of human diseases actually begin among animals.

The meeting reflected a union of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the IAEA. Through their development, IAEA brings to the table a nuclear-derived technology that enables identification of viruses with a few hours–something which has proven critical in rapid detection and control of these diseases.

“This is very important,” Shoemaker said. “Some countries might be well set up to collect samples and detect infections, but they might not have the resources to respond quickly or the opposite: they perform response and containment very quickly, but may not have the diagnostic tests to follow the progression of the outbreak or identify and confirm new cases.”

To that end, the project means to strengthen the connection between veterinary laboratories in Africa and improve coordination in the face of outbreaks. However, while diagnostic capabilities are on the rise, IAEA admitted that networking to best utilize the diagnoses will remain a challenge.