MISSOULA, Mont. – A science writer from Bozeman will present global perceptions of disease at a community forum sponsored by Rocky Mountain Laboratories.
David Quammen has traveled the world doing research, field work and writing about viruses. He has written several books and is a contributing writer for National Geographic.
We have seen a number of outbreaks and epidemics in recent years, and the writer said he is “grimly confident” we will see another one.
He has traveled to the Congo, Australia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Hong Kong.
Quammen said we will likely see another pandemic caused by a virus jumping from its animal host to humans. It’s called spillover.
He said it could be familiar like influenza or viruses that we have already seen like SARS.
“Or it might be something we’ve never heard of,” he said, “as most people had never heard of Zika virus or even Ebola.”
In this universe of constant global travel he said viruses can move anywhere in a short period of time. He said we may be exposing ourselves like no other time in history.
“There are more humans coming in contact with more wild animals exposing themselves to the viruses those animals carry,” he said. “And the viruses spill over and become our infections.”
The science writer said “they are part of a pattern that we are doing. There are 7 billion humans on the planet right now, and we are more and more disrupting wild, diverse ecosystems where so many thousands of animals and plant species live, and each of those animals and plants contain unique viruses.”
For instance, he said, “When a new virus jumps from an endangered species of bat into its first human and succeeds in passing it onto humans that virus has made a great career move.”
“In many cases,” said the writer, ” the reservoir host of these viruses are bats. Bats are very diverse. One in every four mammal species on earth is a bat. But they may only seem to be disproportionately involved in hosting these viruses because there are so many different kinds of bats.”
It isn’t just bats, said Quammen. Some reservoir hosts, he said, are animals like monkeys, apes, rodents and birds.
“We probably can’t eradicate these viruses,” he said, “and we probably shouldn’t try. What we need to do is try to prevent future spillovers to protect ourselves from exposure to new viruses and find ways to contain and limit the viruses that are already circulating in the human population, and one of the best ways to do that is with vaccines.”
On his visit to Hamilton, Quammen said he hopes to provide an opportunity to talk with people about this global problem which is also a Montana problem, as well as for people in Africa and for people at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As citizens we need to understand a little better how they work,” he said. “By understanding just a little bit of the science, the ecology of scary viruses I’m hoping to help people to become better citizens to deal with this global problem.”
Quammen said researching dangerous, scary viruses like Ebola is “detective work.”
He said there are millions of viruses that we don’t know about. He said scientists are like “Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe.”
“Every new dangerous virus begins as a mystery story,” he said. “The scientists who go out and study these viruses in the field are the detectives. They are impressive, brave people doing very important work.”
Quammen said viruses like Ebola, HIV and other high-profile viruses that cause such human suffering are “tragically dramatic.”
But he said “some of the most dangerous viruses are very familiar to us.”
“We’re entering the flu season,” he said. “Influenza kills tens of thousands of people in the United States every year.” But he said we tend not to think about that.
“The influenzas are a very serious group of viruses,” he said. “There’s a new one that comes every year, and they tend to be so transmissible that they only effective way to protect yourself against them is to get vaccinated.”
Quammen will do his presentation on “Ebola to Zika and Beyond: Scary viruses in a globalized world” at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center on Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton.
The event is free and is intended for a general audience.
His presentation is part of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories community outreach series.
The Hamilton-based infectious disease research facility is part of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.