A team of scientists from the United Kingdom has created the world's first global map of risk spots for bat-to-human virus transmission.
The map places West Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia at the highest risk for emerging diseases to jump from bats to people.
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According to the researchers, 60 to 75 percent of the reported emerging infectious diseases in humans can be classified as "zoonotic" - naturally passed from animal to human.
The team focused on bats because they're a known carrier of multiple zoonotic viruses and are the suspected starting point for deadly viruses such as Ebola.
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"We've identified the factors contributing to the transmission of zoonotic diseases, allowing us to create risk maps for each," said lead researcher Kate Jones, University College London ecology and biodiversity chair, in a statement.
"For example," she said, "mapping for potential human-bat contact, we found Sub-Saharan Africa to be a hot spot. Whereas for diversity of bat viruses, we found South America was at most risk. By combining the separate maps, we've created the first global picture of the overall risks of bat viruses infecting humans in different regions."
West Africa, the scientists found, was the highest overall risk location for zoonotic bat viruses.
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The team found human expansion into new places is raising the risk for disease emergence.
"We are seeing risk hot spots for emerging diseases where there are large and increasing populations of both humans and their livestock," said study lead author Liam Brierley, of the University of Edinburgh. "As a result, settlements and industries are expanding into wild areas such as forests, and this is increasing contact between people and bats."
Brierley added that some people in the high risk areas hunt bats for their meat, unaware of the risks of handling the animals.
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The map was created by analyzing published disease data from 1900 to 2013 on 33 different zoonotic bat viruses across nearly 150 species of bat. Then the findings were modeled for bat-human virus sharing patterns, the results plotted onto cells of the global map.
"We're pleased to have collated ecology, epidemiology and public health information to identify the factors that drive virus sharing, and we hope it is used to improve surveillance of emerging diseases and inform decisions about preventative action," Brierley said.
The study's findings have just been published in the journal The American Naturalist.